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Meet scientist Katalin Karikó. She was doubted, but her work is the basis of the new vaccine.

Karikó spent several decades receiving rejections for research grants but has finally seen redemption after her work was recognized for forming the basis of the new COVID-19 jab.

Meet scientist Katalin Karikó. She was doubted, but her work is the basis of the new vaccine.
Image Source: kkariko / Twitter

Katalin Karikó has spent several decades researching the therapeutic possibilities of mRNA. This is a component of DNA that forms the basic building blocks of life. She was one of the first researchers to believe that mRNA could be used for something truly groundbreaking: fighting disease. She began her career in 1970s in Hungary, her native country. At the time, research on mRNA was new and, in search of opportunity, she moved to the United States where she continued to pursue her research. Her career was bridled with rejection, particularly because she is a woman, but her research has now formed the basis of the recently piloted COVID vaccine, CNN reports.


Karikó moved to the United States in 1985 with her husband and young daughter after she received an invitation to conduct research from Temple University in Philadelphia. Though the family had just moved into a new apartment and they were happy, they sold their car and stuffed the money they received into their daughter's teddy bear for safekeeping. She affirmed, "We had to go." Following her research stint at Temple University, she went on to continue it at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine. However, by then, her research was deemed "too radical" and "too financially risky to fund."


Though Karikó applied for grant after grant after grant, she only received rejections. She was even demoted from her position at the University of Pennsylvania in 1995. At the same time, she was diagnosed with cancer. She said in an interview this November, "Usually, at that point, people just say goodbye and leave because it's so horrible. I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else. I also thought maybe I'm not good enough, not smart enough." Despite her circumstances, she chose not to give up on her research.


Eventually, she found a breakthrough. Karikó and her former colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, Drew Weissman, invented a method to utilize synthetic mRNA to fight diseases that involve changing the way the body produces virus-fighting material. This is what now forms the basis of the COVID-19 vaccine. Some have said that Karikó and Weissman even deserve a Nobel Prize for this reason. Derek Rossi, one of the founders of pharmaceutical giant Moderna, stated, "If anyone asks me whom to vote for some day down the line, I would put them front and center. That fundamental discovery is going to go into medicines that help the world."


Karikó, who is now the senior vice president of the Germany-based BioNTech, does not believe it is time to celebrate just yet though. "Really, we will celebrate when this human suffering is over, when the hardship and all of this terrible time will end," she said. "And hopefully in the summer when we will forget about virus and vaccine. And then I will be really celebrating." She hopes to get the vaccine soon; she is "very, very confident" that it will work. Then, she will have enough time to revel in her scientific glory. For now, she has treated herself to a bag of Goobers, her favorite candy.


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