The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine a Katalin Kariko e Drew Weissman this is wonderful news. A recognition of the enormous contribution of scientific research during the pandemic. But it is also a hymn to freedom of study and to the method of science which demonstrates how research needs, yes, ideas, but also that ideas (and the people on whose legs they walk) are free: to move, to enter into contact with different cultures and worlds, to be experimented, put into competition and evaluated.
Katalin Karikó, a Hungarian scientist born in 1955, was among the first to understand the treatment potential of messenger RNA (or mRNA), now the basis of anti-Covid-19 vaccines. Thirty years passed between the intuition that this molecule could be used for therapeutic purposes, to educate the cells of the organism, and its application. In between there were many avenues explored, experiments and attempts in a direction never faced before and, therefore, many failures to cope with, the disinterest in research deemed “useless”, the funding never arrived. Years of trials and defeats, to which Karikó never gave up.
mRna vaccines, from the Nobel Prize to ongoing studies against tumors by Tiziana Moriconi 02 October 2023
The journey to the United States
In order to continue studying as a biochemist, she emigrated with her family from Hungary to the United States in the 1980s. During the journey she entrusted her daughter Susan of two years all their savings, sewing them into the lining of his teddy bear. In the USA she began as a young researcher at Temple University in Philadelphia. Here she was involved in testing a cure for HIV based on RNA obtained in the laboratory.
He became passionate about the idea that RNAs could become drugs, but the application of this hypothesis proved to be fraught with difficulties: the RNAs he produced in the laboratory degraded too quickly, or in other cases their injection generated an immune reaction of rejection . Meanwhile, attempts to attract attention to his projects were rejected, preliminary tests were considered immature or risky, he failed to obtain a stable academic position; the essential experiments on animals highlighted the problem of an excessive immune response to the therapeutic RNA that was injected. This was the obstacle to overcome.
Karikó doesn’t give up. In 1997, immunologist Drew Weissman arrived at Temple and sensed the potential of his work. 2005 was the turning point year: Karikó and Weissman understood and demonstrated that some specific micromodifications to the RNA nucleoside make the molecule invisible to the immune system and a perfect vector for therapies. But their research was still considered “useless.” Then in 2013, Ugur Sahin e Ozlem Tureci, husband and wife, offer Karikó to join BioNTech, the company they had founded five years earlier, to study the effectiveness of RNA in anti-cancer vaccines. It is also thanks to these decades of studies that in February 2020 Karikó and the others at BioNTech managed to design the first mRNA vaccine in record time. Knowing the thirty years of effort, the defeats and failures that the scientist who is now a Nobel Prize winner went through without ever giving up would perhaps have served to silence terrorist narratives and fears about a vaccine that arrived “in too short a time”.
The words of Rita Levi Montalcini
Before the Nobel triumph, Karikó’s biography is a story of defeats, of doors slammed in her face, of an emigration from Soviet Hungary to an America that never gave her anything, in order to continue pursuing an idea in which no one, other than her, seemed to have faith. It is the story of the road that this scientist built on her own, with stubbornness and courage, taking advantage of every space of freedom and every possible opportunity. Starting from that of being able to move and bring your own ideas where the foresight to invest in the exchange of ideas and knowledge overcomes the temptations of closure and the fear of the unknown.
The researchers – he wrote Rita Levi Montalcini in a letter to his mother and sister – they study things that “are of no interest to anyone except a very small group of colleagues”. Yet, today we have proof that those studies can save the world.
Elena Cattaneo And professor at the University of Milan and Senator for life