Catalin Cariko, the rock star of science who will win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Paris. – His tall image is not frightening, quite the opposite: it encourages you to look at the world with a new look. She’s definitely at another height, but in one place Scientific concepts The complex can be translated into obvious solutions.

The Hungarian scientist Katalin Kariko He leaves in a few hours to his laboratory in Germany, where his team BioNTech in MainzBut her memories now take her to Mexico. To the blue of its beaches, to family gatherings, to Olympic monuments.

She is generous with her memories. His wide smile widens even more when he talks about his daughter Susan, biolympic . canoe athlete. He jokes and says that after 40 years without getting any recognition, now he doesn’t remember very well what other award he should get in the following months, so maybe he can tell his daughter that she is famous now too.

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I’ve always seen Susan surrounded by people asking for her autograph and getting to know me, but because I was her mother. I especially loved seeing the girls next to her, asking her questions about the sports she does. I think that’s exactly what I enjoy about suddenly becoming famous: that highlighting my work helps inspire someone else in some way.

But Dr. Cariko proves it beyond words. It is surrounded by several generations of scholars whose admiration is evident. At his side is Dr. Hailan Hu, who has gone from emerging talent to veteran L’Oréal-UNESCO Prize winner and whose career studying the neurobiology of emotions shows new hope in the fight against depression. Another part of this notion of fame gives Dr. Cariko a little bit of kindness, like the fact that characters like Bill Gates look at her with special interest, but in the same way she thanks all the scholars who despised her ideas for so many years because she seemed so bold and mischievously says: “They refused my funding. To search and even separate me once, but the only thing they were able to do was force me to persevere even more. That’s why what I always say is that if you’re really passionate about something, you can’t let it go.”

We spoke with Catalin Carrico in the context of the award For women in science L’Oreal-UNESCO, between a formal interview and various casual encounters that broadcast and prolong his ideas.

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The first question relates to your work at RNA رسول messenger (mRNA) started a new generation of Vaccines against COVID-19. This retrospective presentation occurs two years after the onset of the pandemic.

“It doesn’t feel like a redemption. It’s about working for many years where every step we gradually climbed was necessary to create something new and when this virus arrived everything was ready to be crafted and tested and experimented with, in short, all the parts that had to function were ready for the work that we were We’re doing it against influenza. Fortunately, it happened at the perfect time for many years’ work to take the form of a vaccine against Covid-19,” he points out and speaks passionately specifically about mRNA, a substance found naturally in our cells. “With the mRNA vaccine, the body is instructed to produce an exogenous viral protein on its own that is sufficient to activate the immune system and establish immunity against SARS-CoV-2.”

“They refused to fund me for research and even fired me once, but the only thing they achieved was that I was more persistent.”


A stable synthetic mRNA molecule was the critical component of the art of Pfizer/BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccines.. Photo: file/EL UNIVERSAL.

The history of Catalin dates back to January 17, 1955, in Szolnok, a medieval town in central Hungary, where he loved climbing trees to spy on birds among the nests and seeing them hatch. But another start was when his passion for mRNA began. The moment fizzles out between different emotions, but it closes when he was 23, accepting a position in the Laboratory of Nucleotide Chemistry of the Institute of Biophysics, at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Although the existence of this substance has been known since the 1960s, there is still a long way to go to obtain a stable molecule of synthetic mRNA, a critical component of vaccine technology against Covid-19 from Pfizer / BioNTech and modern. However, it was at that moment that his passion for synthesizing molecules began to really begin to give weight to his story.

The mRNA vaccines against Covid-19 are based on the genome of the coronavirus, specifically the gene that codes for the S protein, but the molecule is modified to increase its stability and make it easier for the cell to read and translate it. and viral protein synthesis. The BioNTech vaccine contains synthetic messenger RNA, which is an artificial copy of a section of the genetic material of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

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Katalin represents flights from a long test drive to achieve this stability. “The scientific work of recognizing errors. Try again and again, change percentages, try new processes. This is the drive for any work of this kind because you are looking for something that is not there, it is not something you can simply ask for,” he asserts.

Many have repeatedly told him that it is impossible to be a material that can be fixed. “In science, our unknown stage. We did a lot of things, everything was tested because no one really knew how it worked; every step was unknown and we simply tried to take it. Finally, what was achieved was a technology platform that could work on many things. , in addition to vaccines, such as gene therapies.”

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Beyond SARS-CoV-2

When asked about the next step in his investigations, he said, “The future is really in the past.” “Actually, the Covid-19 thing started three years ago, but the studies that I started 40 years ago were not looking for this specifically, but for an mRNA molecule to be functional and stable without causing rejection in the body and thus could be used in Treatments, for example, for the benefit of people who have had a heart attack. The good news is that cardiovascular regeneration using mRNA technology just gave its first positive tests last February, when a protein was injected into heart muscle in a bypass.”

In this way, Catalin Carrico explains how one of her great goals has just been achieved, as advanced clinical trials of this technology have tested positively, which could benefit a wide range of people. Cardiovascular disease.

In addition to continuing studies in multiple therapeutic applications with the hypothesis that the body’s cells can produce the molecules needed to fight disease, the scientist points out that other lines of research are also following a positive path. “In the case of vaccines against malaria and tuberculosis, it is not yet in the clinical trial phase, but we hope that it will happen very soon, as we continue with more rigorous studies to understand it.”

“When this virus arrived, everything was ready … the parts that had to work, because of the work we were already doing against influenza”
Katalin Kariko
Hungarian world

On the other hand, the HIV Vaccine He had a good run. His partner and best ally in his scientific developments, immunologist Drew Wiseman, said that in less than a decade an effective vaccine for this virus can be obtained.

When I ask the scientist if the next award will be the Nobel Prize, she does nothing but smile and humbly avoids what could be a near reality, especially after receiving a series of acknowledgments that include, among other things, the Louis S. Rosenstiel Prize, a sort of prelude. For the Nobel Prize in Chemistry she could receive in the near future, along with Weissmann, her ally in the laboratory.

Kariko knows she’s the new rock star in science. It’s amusing with the title, but it suggests that recognition is actually the sum of many people who are passionate about what they do. Those who get acquainted with her ask for autographs and photos; She is generous with everyone. Laugh, hug and have fun talking. She is interested in getting to know others and tries to be empathetic no matter what they do. When we have to take a car ride together, she shows me the recognition I got as the 2022 Laureate for Women in Science in Paris. A biochemist with bright eyes and a curious look smiles proudly. “The best advice anyone can give is to be an idiot.” Emphasize that it is a virtue that cannot be ignored when you want something.

life in science

Katalin Kariko was born on January 17, 1955 in the Hungarian city of Szolnok.

PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Szeged.

His scientific work in his country was not easy, so in 1985 he accepted a post-doctoral position at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Associate Professor of Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, and senior vice president of BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals.

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