Katalin Kariko with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – Photo: Facebook

Hungarian Katalin Kariko awarded Nobel Prize in medicine

Hungarian-born biochemist Katalin Kariko and American physician-scientist Drew Weissman have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries concerning nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against Covid-19, the secretary of the Nobel Assembly announced in Stockholm on Monday.
2. October 2023 15:21

The Nobel Prize carries a cash award of 11 million Swedish krona (EUR 952,000). The award ceremony is traditionally held on Dec. 10, the death anniversary of Alfred Nobel.

Gunilla Karlsson Hedestam, a member of the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, said Kariko and Weissman’s work had been crucial in saving lives in the early stages of the pandemic.

“The impressive flexibility and speed with which mRNA vaccines can be developed pave the way for using the new platform also for vaccines against other infectious diseases,” the Nobel Assembly said in its press release. “In the future, the technology may also be used to deliver therapeutic proteins and treat some cancer types.”

President Katalin Novak congratulated Kariko in a post on Facebook. “Katalin Kariko is the first Hungarian woman to receive a Nobel Prize,” Novak noted. “Our nation is enriched by and proud of a Nobel Prize winner whose research may have saved millions of lives.”

Out of 227 recipients in medicine since the prize’s inception, Kariko is the 13th woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Janos Csak, the culture and innovation minister, paid tribute to Kariko’s “perseverance, determination, tirelessness and professionalism”. He told MTI in Tokyo that Kariko always had “a defined goal, which she stuck to and pursued with conviction, even when difficulties arose and she found herself without funding.”

He said that even today, some countries hived off basic research from applied research, adding that the development of mRNA-based vaccines started as basic research but swiftly turned into applied research owing to the coronavirus epidemic.

When doing basic research, Csak said, it was necessary to think ahead to real human needs.

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) said in a statement that Kariko’s “pioneering work” opened a new era in the treatment and prevention of many diseases.

While carrying out research at the Biological Research Centre in Szeged in the 1980s, she soon became committed to studying messenger mRNA, which helps cells to make proteins from the information stored in DNA, the statement said.

“From the vast blueprint of our cells, it’s as if a page is copied and sent to the factory, the ribosome, to make what the blueprint describes,” it added.

She soon had a hunch this mechanism could be exploited to give instructions to each cell to make various useful molecules, using our own body as a “pharmaceutical factory”, the MTA said.

Speaking to journalists in Szeged, where she earned her doctorate in 1983, Kariko said what mattered most was to find joy in work. Kariko said her message to young students was that it was important for them to maintain their physical and mental health and to handle stress.

Kariko, a research professor at Szeged University (SZTE), said her advice to young people was to become better and better in their field through enjoyment in their work. She cited Hungarian-born scientist Hans Selye, one of the world’s most influential stress researchers, as saying that focus should be put on what can be changed.

Answering a question, Kariko recalled that her mother had listened to the Nobel Prize announcements each year, hoping that her daughter’s name would be read out, even though there were times when she was just “busy in the lab” without a job or a research group.

Kariko was born in Szolnok, in eastern Hungary, and graduated from the University of Szeged with a degree in biology. She obtained a PhD at the Szeged Biological Research Centre in 1983 before continuing her career as a biochemist in the United States.

She began working with Drew Weissman in 1998, and the two filed their patent for the use of nucleoside-modified mRNA in 2005.

From 2006 to 2013, Kariko was CEO of RNARx, a company she co-founded with Weissman.

In 2013, she went to work for BioNTech with her Japanese research partner Hiromi Muramatsu. She soon became the company’s vice president, going on to oversee the development of BioNTech and Pfizer’s mRNA-based coronavirus vaccine in 2020.

Kariko has received several Hungarian and international awards, including the Szechenyi Prize, the Ignaz Semmelweis Prize, the Reichstein Medal and the Grande Medaille of the French Academy of Sciences.

This year, she and Weissman were awarded the 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

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