Katalin Karikó, European Inventor Award winner, honoured with Nobel Prize

Katalin Karikó

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Katalin Karikó, who won the Lifetime Achievement category at the European Inventor Award in 2022,  has now been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The Nobel Assembly selected the Hungarian-American researcher and her colleague Drew Weissman for modifying messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) for safe use in the human body. Their work greatly enhanced our understanding of mRNA and was crucial in developing effective mRNA vaccines to slow the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Katalin Karikó is the fifth Award finalist to be recognised for their outstanding contribution to science. She joins Peter Grünberg (2007, Physics), Shuji Nakamura (2014, Physics), Stefan Hell (2014, Chemistry) and Akira Yoshino (2019, Chemistry) in the ranks of alumni of the Award who have gone on to become Nobel Laureates.

The power of perseverance

Scientists knew that injecting synthetic mRNA into a body make it produce specific proteins on demand. In the late 80s, Karikó began research into RNA coding, aiming to make the body produce a protein that accelerates wound healing. However, mRNA was difficult to work with and the cost of development saw it fall out of favour in the scientific community in the 1990s. At one point, Karikó couldn't get funding for her mRNA work and was even demoted from her faculty position.

Despite these setbacks, she persevered and in 1997 found a new ally in immunologist Drew Weissman. Together they worked on a therapeutic mRNA-based HIV vaccine using a molecule they had created. They had unlocked a broad range of scenarios in which the molecule could feasibly be used in disease treatment and vaccination.

Beyond COVID-19, Karikó's research has paved the way to a wide range of medical treatments based on modified mRNA. Efforts are underway to develop therapeutic vaccines for different types of cancer, as well as treatments for cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disorders.