Katalin Karikó – former student of the University of Szeged, honorary doctor of the University of Szeged
Katalin Karikó, PhD, is Senior Vice President of BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals, where she started to work in 2013. She is also Adjunct Associate Professor at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, where she worked for 24 years, between 1989 and 2013.
For four decades, her research has been focusing on RNA-mediated mechanisms with the ultimate goal of developing in vitro-transcribed mRNA for protein therapy. She investigated RNA-mediated immune activation and together with Dr. Drew Weissman discovered that nucleoside modifications suppress immunogenicity of RNA. This groundbreaking work unlocked the opportunity for the therapeutic use of mRNA. Her patent, co-invented with Dr. Weissman on nucleoside-modified uridines of mRNA was the foundation for the FDA-approved anti-SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccines developed by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna/NIH.
Katalin Karikó was born in Hungary in 1955. She grew up in Kisújszállás, a small town of just ten thousand inhabitants, 150 kilometers east of Budapest, where she also completed her secondary education. Her interest in biology was fueled partly by the school's excellent biology teacher, Albert Tóth, and partly by her father's work as a butcher. Her outstanding academic results opened to her the doors of the University of Szeged, which has one of the strongest biological training programs in the country and a leading professorial body engaging in cutting-edge research.
After her university years rich in scientific achievement, she obtained her doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Szeged, Hungary in 1982. Her thesis work involved the synthesis and antiviral evaluation of 2’-5’-linked oligoadenylates, called 2-5A, that is responsible for the interferon-induced antiviral mechanism. She performed her research at the Biological Research Center, focusing on 2-5A generated with nucleoside analog, cordycepin.
In 1985, after moving to Temple University, Philadelphia, she expanded her research on 2-5A molecules modified at their nucleosides and internucleotide linkages. In 1986, she helped to perform a clinical trial run at the Hahnemann University, where HIV-infected patients were treated with mismatched double-stranded RNA to induce activation of their antiviral systems. She invented an assay that helped to identify the existence of an RNaseL inhibitor in the PBMCs (Peripheral blood mononuclear cell) of infected patients. After moving to Bethesda in 1988, she studied the anti-cancer effect of interferon at USUHS (Department of Pathology) using the most advanced molecular biology technology then available.
In 1989 she started work as Research Assistant Professor at the Medical School of University of Pennsylvania. There she started to use in vitro-transcribed (IVT) mRNA to overexpress selected proteins in cultured cells. Her first success in this area was when she demonstrated that functional, highly processed proteins were generated from in vitro-transcribed (IVT) mRNA transfected into cultured mammalian cells, suggesting that the mRNA encoding of therapeutic proteins had the potential to treat various diseases. However, she, together with Drew Weissman demonstrated the IVT mRNA is immunogenic and thus unfit for therapeutic use. They identified uridine as being responsible for this response. After searching for years, they discovered that incorporating naturally-occurring modified nucleosides such as pseudouridine into the mRNA, the newly created mRNA was highly translatable and avoided the activation of TLR7 and TLR8 in human immune cells. They also invented a purification procedure that further increased the translational capacity of the mRNA. As the result of this work, together with her colleagues she demonstrated the functional utility of nucleoside-modified mRNA encoding antibodies for treatment of cancer and infectious diseases. In animal models of multiple sclerosis, they used autoantigen-encoding mRNA and proved that this novel mRNA technology could be used for the induction of tolerization, thus opening up the possibility to treat autoimmune diseases.
She is co-inventor on 13 patents granted by the US related to application of non-immunogenic, nucleoside-modified RNA. Together with Dr. Weissman, she founded RNARx, a company dedicated to developing nucleoside-modified mRNA for therapeutic purposes. She served as CEO of RNARx from 2006-2013. She is a founding member of the scientific planning committee for the International mRNA Health Conference, an annual non-profit meeting for advancements of mRNA technology, inaugurated in 2013. In 2019, she served as guest editor of the Molecular Therapy special issue on mRNA Therapy.