János Csák, the culture and innovation minister, has paid tribute to Nobel Prize winner Katalin Karikó’s “perseverance, determination, tirelessness and professionalism”.
The minister told MTI in Tokyo that the soon-to-be Nobel laureate had always “a defined goal, which she stuck to and pursued with conviction, even when difficulties arose and she found herself without funding.” He said that even today, some countries hived off basic research from applied research, adding that the development of mRNA-based vaccines started as basic research but swiftly turned into applied research owing to the coronavirus epidemic. When doing basic research, Csák said, it was necessary to think ahead to real human needs. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) said in a statement that Karikó’s “pioneering work” opened a new era in the treatment and prevention of many diseases. While carrying out research at the Biological Research Centre in Szeged in the 1980s, she soon became committed to studying messenger mRNA, which helps cells to make proteins from the information stored in DNA, the statement said. “From the vast blueprint of our cells, it’s as if a page is copied and sent to the factory, the ribosome, to make what the blueprint describes,” it added. She soon had a hunch this mechanism could be exploited to give instructions to each cell to make various useful molecules, using our own body as a “pharmaceutical factory”, the MTA said.
Speaking to journalists in Szeged, where she earned her doctorate in 1983, Karikó said what mattered most was to find joy in work. Karikó said her message to young students was that it was important for them to maintain their physical and mental health and to handle stress. Karikó, a research professor at Szeged University (SZTE), said her advice to young people was to become better and better in their field through enjoyment in their work. She cited Hungarian-born scientist Hans Selye, one of the world’s most influential stress researchers, as saying that focus should be put on what can be changed. Answering a question, Karikó recalled that her mother had listened to the Nobel Prize announcements each year, hoping that her daughter’s name would be read out, even though there were times when she was just “busy in the lab” without a job or a research group. Karikó was born in Szolnok, in eastern Hungary, and graduated from the University of Szeged with a degree in biology. She obtained a PhD at the Szeged Biological Research Centre in 1983 before continuing her career as a biochemist in the United States. She began working with Drew Weissman in 1998, and the two filed their patent for the use of nucleoside-modified mRNA in 2005. From 2006 to 2013, Karikó was CEO of RNARx, a company she co-founded with Weissman. In 2013, she went to work for BioNTech with her Japanese research partner Hiromi Muramatsu. She soon became the company’s vice president, going on to oversee the development of BioNTech and Pfizer’s mRNA-based coronavirus vaccine in 2020. Karikó has received several Hungarian and international awards, including the Szechenyi Prize, the Ignaz Semmelweis Prize, the Reichstein Medal and the Grande Medaille of the French Academy of Sciences. This year, she and Weissman were awarded the 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.