Dr. Katalin Karikó is now VP at BioNTech

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The coronavirus vaccines wouldn’t be possible without advancements developed at the University of Pennsylvania, which has been touting its contribution in news releases and TV ads. But it turns out the school wasn’t very supportive of the scientist who led the charge.

Former Penn researcher Dr. Katalin Karikó’s dedication to the promise of using messenger RNA (mRNA) in medicine paved the way for the vaccines now giving society hope.

As Karikó worked for decades toward adapting mRNA to bring out its therapeutic qualities, her efforts were repeatedly dismissed by the university, she has said. When she was unable to find funding, Penn demoted her, taking her off the track to full professorship.

“Usually, at that point, people just say goodbye and leave because it’s so horrible,” Karikó, known as Kati, told Stat News in November.

The breakthrough finally came in 2005, after Karikó found a colleague whose passion for the topic mirrored hers in Dr. Drew Weissman. Now 65, she’s a VP at a biotech firm. Both she and Weissman, a professor at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, were quoted in a recent release from the university.

“I feel humbled, and happy,” says Karikó in the release, referred to as an adjunct professor. “I am more [of] a basic scientist, but I always wanted to do something to help patients.”.

Penn officials declined to comment on their relationship with Karikó, previous or current. “We are unable to discuss specifics about faculty or staff employment matters,” spokesperson Stephen Maccarthy told Billy Penn.

Despite the university’s original attitude toward Karikó’s research, it holds the patent on the tech used in the COVID-19 vaccines.

From Hungary to Temple to Penn

It was 1961 when scientists first discovered mRNA was how DNA got translated into the proteins that make up the body. It was the missing link, the way genes get expressed in everyday life.

Over the next couple decades, researchers began to explore whether they could use mRNA to teach the body to make its own medicine. But with few advancements, the topic fell out of fashion.

Except for one Hungarian biochemist.

Karikó started studying gene therapy at the University of Szeged in her native country. She finished her PhD in 1982, with an unrelenting passion for mRNA advancements.

“I always thought that the majority of patients don’t actually need new genes, they need something temporary like a drug, to cure their aches and pains,” Karikó told Wired earlier this month.

With mRNA research more popular in the United States, Karikó opted to immigrate with her husband and 2-year-old daughter. At the time, Hungarians were prohibited from taking their money to a new country — so when Karikó sold her car, according to France24, she stashed the cash in her daughter’s teddy bear.

The hopeful scientist scored a job at Temple, and moved to Philly in 1985. Four years later, she left because of a dispute with her boss, who attempted to have her deported, per Wired. (Temple did not respond to a request for comment.)

Karikó moved on to the University of Pennsylvania, where she diligently searched for research funding. She applied for grants and hit up venture capitalists in New York City. No one would bite.

“They initially promised to give us money,” Karikó said of the venture capitalists, “but then they never returned my phone calls.”

After six years, her bosses at Penn were reportedly so frustrated by the lack of momentum that they cut her salary and demoted her.

“I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else,” Karikó told Stat News. “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”

A sympathetic colleague, and a move to biotech

Things didn’t look up until 1997, when colleague Drew Weissman got to Penn.

He and Karikó met over their department’s copy machine, per Wired, where they realized their shared interests and started working together. It took seven years, but the pair eventually figured out how to make mRNA therapy work.

In 2005, Karikó and Weissman published their groundbreaking study. The University of Pennsylvania licensed the technology and patented it. (Researchers’ patents are often held by the institutions where they work.)

Karikó stayed on at Penn for eight years, but was never reinstated her to the tenure track position she held before she was demoted.

“We are grateful for Dr. Karikó’s important contributions both during her time at Penn,” said university spokesperson Maccarthy, “where she continues to hold an appointment as an adjunct associate professor.” The school’s promo video about mRNA technology focuses on Weissman, mentioning Karikó only in passing.

In 2013, she gave up on the Ivy League institution and took a senior VP role at BioNTech, a pharma firm valued at almost $28 billion as of spring 2021. The company partnered with Pfizer to make the first COVID vaccine, with Karikó working as a key player.

She herself was vaccinated last week — at Penn.

“I’m hopeful,” Karikó said, “now that there is so much interest and excitement for this research, that it will be possible to develop and test this mRNA vaccine technology for prevention and treatment of other diseases, too.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...