Until last year most individuals had never heard about a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine. But for biochemist Katalin Kariko, the vision of an mRNA-based therapeutic was born decades before the coronavirus pandemic.
After moving from Hungary to the U.S. to research gene therapy at the University of Pennsylvania in 1990, Dr. Kariko’s research became solely focused on mRNA despite skepticism from fellow faculty. For about forty years, Dr. Kariko’s work was overlooked by the NIH. Nevertheless, she rose above grant rejections and demotions to develop the first mRNA vaccine for covid-19 at BioNTech. Her perseverance and unwavering belief in the power of her research serves as an example for all women facing setbacks and disproportionate societal scrutiny of their work.
Before Dr. Kariko’s discoveries, synthetic mRNA got little to no attention from the scientific community and was considered a dead end as a therapeutic. Scientists believed that there was no way for mRNA to reach target cells without being destroyed by the body’s immune system. Unlike other researchers, Dr. Kariko saw this as a critical opportunity and summoned up the confidence to overcome this obstacle. She rose above the experimental failures that followed and let them guide her to a greater understanding of creating mRNA with a modified nucleoside that could avoid a defense system attack from the human body. This breakthrough became the backbone of both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines and a field of immunization technology to protect against infectious diseases.
Even after Dr. Kariko and her collaborator, Dr. Weissman’s findings had been published in scientific journals, she was not ready to end her journey with mRNA there. Her mission had always been reaching patients. In 2013, this meant bringing her knowledge to the biotechnology industry and joining BioNTech RNA pharmaceuticals. By 2020, BioNTech was able to swiftly develop their covid-19 vaccine with Dr. Kariko leading the mRNA-based protein replacement program.
For women with similar aspirations to Dr. Kariko, a pattern of neglect and doubt from male superiors in the scientific industry and academia isn’t new. While the goal of making progress should ultimately surpass the effort to protect one’s ego, there is still a lasting impediment to women’s voices amid a fixation over job titles. In an interview with the Guardian, Dr. Kariko reflected on a lack of collaboration and impact of power in science stating that men “have had more time to practice wielding power” and “if so many people who are in a certain field would come together in a room and forget their names, their egos, their titles, and just think, they would come up with so many solutions for so many things.”
In this sense, the importance of Dr. Kariko’s discovery extends beyond the realm of scientific achievement and is rooted in the commonality of female will and resilience. It is from these qualities that ambition thrives, which for Kariko has been guided by her unwavering belief in mRNA and unwillingness to lose an innate sense of curiosity to rejection.
Although Dr. Kariko is set to possibly win the Nobel peace prize for her work in suppressing synthetic mRNA immunogenicity, many women still haven’t heard her name. By celebrating her achievement, her imperfect path, and her pioneering spirit, we’re fostering an environment that empowers women to find the courage to be visionary.
Feature image courtesy of the American Kidney Fund.