Against All Odds – Fantastic Woman Katalin Kariko wins Nobel Prize

Katalin Kariko winner of 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work in mRNA vaccines
Katalin Kariko
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The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet has awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for their discoveries concerning nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.


Hungarian-born Katalin Karikó is a biochemist and molecular biologist who has made significant contributions to the field of messenger RNA (mRNA) research. Her pioneering work was instrumental in the development of mRNA-based vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccines, which have had a transformative impact on global healthcare.

Katalin Karikó was born in 1955 in Hungary and developed an early interest in science, particularly genetics and biology. She got a degree in biochemistry and later completed her Ph.D. in the same field, in Budapest.

Karikó’s research has largely been focused on the potential of messenger RNA (mRNA) as a therapeutic tool. mRNA is a molecule responsible for carrying genetic instructions from DNA to the ribosome, where proteins are synthesized. While mRNA research held great promise for therapeutic applications, there were significant challenges, including its inherent instability and the risk of triggering an immune response in the body.

Karikó was one of the first scientists to recognize these challenges and dedicated her career to finding solutions. She collaborated with other scientists, including fellow Nobel Prize winner, American immunologist Dr. Drew Weissman, to develop modified mRNA molecules that were more stable and less likely to provoke an immune response. Their pioneering work laid the foundation for the use of mRNA in vaccines and therapies, such as in the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. These vaccines represent a revolutionary approach to immunization, as they do not use weakened or inactivated viruses but instead rely on a small piece of mRNA to instruct cells to produce a viral spike protein, triggering an immune response.

The successful deployment of mRNA vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated their safety and effectiveness, offering hope for rapid responses to emerging infectious diseases and other medical conditions.

(Read about other vaccine makers: Profile – The Women Behind the Vaccine)

However, earlier on, when in the mid-2000s Kariko and Drew Weismann submitted their paper on mRNA to scientific journal Nature, the journal rejected it for being “an incremental contribution” only. The paper was then published in another journal Immunology.

Furthermore, Karikó spent more than two decades as a poorly supported researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is an adjunct professor. Prior to winning the Nobel Prize, the university had demoted her, cut her pay and she was never granted tenure because her applications for grants kept getting rejected.

But Kariko did not give up. in 2013, she joined German company BioNTech, which in 2018, partnered with Pfizer to develop mRNA vaccines against the flu (influenza).

And then Covid-19 struck in 2019, and this is when Kariko’s research was used by Pfizer and BioNTech to produce the first vaccine against the previously unknown and deadly virus.

Subsequently, Katalin Karikó’s work has received widespread recognition and acclaim. In 2020, she was elected as a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI), and has received numerous awards for her contributions to science and medicine.

Katalin Karikó’s relentless dedication to mRNA research and her groundbreaking discoveries have not only transformed the field of molecular biology but have also had a profound impact on global health. Her work has opened up new possibilities for the development of vaccines and therapies for a wide range of diseases, making her a pioneering figure in the world of biomedical research.

Katalin Karikó’s story is a testament to the power of perseverance, dedication, and scientific innovation in advancing human knowledge and improving healthcare outcomes. She continued her work against all odds and her contributions continue to inspire scientists and researchers worldwide, particularly in the field of mRNA-based medicine.

A Fantastic Woman indeed!



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I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.

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