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Meet Kati Kariko, the Ignored Scientist Who Saved the World From Covid-19

Team StoryWeavers|February 15, 2022, 13:18 IST|

Image of Dr Kati Kariko


In the last two years, one of the only few things you could hear everyone talk about is the coronavirus. But more than that, the one thing people would sound hopeful for was when they talked about the vaccine — the one weapon that could help defeat this monster that has taken over our lives.

Scientists and researchers across the world raced against time to create covid vaccines at record speed. And within less than a year of the pandemic, we had effective vaccines, which are now saving millions of lives. While there are many groups of scientists and researchers that we need to thank for the speedy development of these vaccines, there is one particular woman who needs to be talked about more than the others and her name is Katalin Kariko.

Kati Kariko, as she is known, is a 66-year-old Hungarian biochemist who helped develop the mRNA technology that is the basis of the Covid-19 vaccine. Her extraordinary tale of fighting against all odds to become a true hero is worth knowing.

Kati was born in a small town in Hungary on 17 January 1955. Her parents weren’t very well to do — her father was a butcher and mother a bookkeeper — but encouraged her interest in science. Despite growing up in a house without running water or electricity, she kept at her love for scientific research and got her PhD from the University of Szeged. She worked as a researcher at the university’s Biological Research Center. In the meantime, she also married and had a daughter.

But soon, in 1985, her university ran out of money and so, Kati and her family were forced to move to the United States with the little money they had. As the Hungarian government would only allow them to take $100 out of the country, Kati and her husband sowed $900 into their daughter’s stuffed teddy bear, in order to start a new life abroad.

Kati got a job as a researcher at Temple University but that, too, ended soon. Thus, started a long and disappointing list of universities and labs she would work at, all of which ended as nobody was really interested in her research into mRNA. RNA or Ribonucleic Acid is a polymeric molecule that is present in all our cells, and most importantly, our genes. Along with DNA, RNA helps code our biological systems. There are three main types of RNA: mRNA, tRNA, and rRNA. mRNA, or messenger RNA, is what cells in our bodies use to make proteins. It is also what many viruses use to encode their genetic information.

In the 80s and 90s, the scientific community wasn’t paying attention to RNA research, even though in theory it could provide answers to the cure of many diseases. In 1989, Kati was working with Dr Elliot Barnathan, a cardiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, when she had her first big breakthrough. After conducting a series of experiments, which included inserting mRNA into cells directly, the duo stumbled upon something that nobody thought they could find. Using a gamma tracker, which tracks radioactive molecules, they found new proteins produced by the cells that were never supposed to be produced. This meant that mRNA could be used to direct any cell to produce any protein at any time.

Even though many had laughed at them, Kati recalled that she felt like a God at that moment. Their discovery meant that they could use mRNA to direct cells in our bodies to do almost anything — from improving blood vessels for heart bypass surgeries to even extending the lifespan of human cells.

But, just like every other time, Kati was once again left without a research lab. Then, by chance, she met Dr Drew Weissman, an immunologist, with whom she would go on to help create the Covid-19 vaccine. Dr Weissman and Kati decided to work on a vaccine against HIV using mRNA. But her experiments hit a roadblock. While she could get cells to make any protein in a petri dish, she could not get them to do it in a living organism, like mice. In fact, the mice would get sick the moment she injected them with mRNA. And nobody knew why.

After much more research and experiments, the two scientists realised that the mice’s immune systems were detecting the invading microbes by detecting their mRNA and were reacting by making the mice sick. The immune system saw the mRNA injections as an infection.

But Kati had one question: The human body produces mRNA as well, but the immune system doesn’t react this way to it. So, why was the mRNA she made different?

One experiment finally gave them an answer. Kati’s mRNA injections were causing an immune overreaction in the mice. But the tRNA, or transfer RNA, in the body, did not. A molecule called pseudouridine in tRNA allowed it to dodge the immune system’s screening. Turns out, the human body’s mRNA also has pseudouridine. When Kari added the molecule to her mRNA, it dodged the immune system. Not only that, it was much more powerful and instructed the cells to produce 10 times the protein it normally would. This meant that mRNA could be used to change the way our cells worked without triggering the immune system.

This very fundamental discovery, although very basic, meant the whole world of science and medicine would change forever. However, nobody in the community paid any attention, despite the research being published. The two doctors conducted further experiments, one of which involved a monkey, and proved that mRNA could be used to create more red blood cells or even fight diseases, simply by letting the cells know what vaccine to produce.

After many rejections, finally, two pharmaceutical companies took notice of the groundbreaking technology — Moderna in the United States and BioNtech in Germany. The two companies would later, in 2020, go on to make the first Covid-19 vaccines using the mRNA technology that Kati helped create.

After close to 30 years of research and constant rejections, Kati was finally recognized for her contributions. It was her technology, which she has patented along with Dr Weissman, that helped pharmaceutical companies develop the vaccine in record time and helped save so many lives. It was her undying love for science and her curiosity to keep searching for the truth she knew would help the world, that makes Kati a true scientist.

On 8 November 2020, when the first results of the Covid-19 vaccine trials showed a strong response against the virus, Kati celebrated with a box of chocolates that she ate all by herself!

Kati’s determination and love for science is very inspiring. Who else has similarly inspired you? Let us know in the comments. 

About the Author

Madhavi is passionate about everything to do with books, art, literature, films, trivia and food. A former journalist, she believes that asking questions makes life interesting.

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