The Hungarian researcher Katalin Kariko He went from absolute anonymity to world fame in 2021, during the covid pandemic. Thanks to his work of nearly half a century to unravel the secrets of ribonucleic acid that transfers the genetic code from DNA –better known as messenger RNA– it was possible to develop the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, that saved the lives of millions of people. But his first work on the subject, published in 2005, went completely unnoticed by the scientific community.
He receives us at the headquarters of the Conchita Rábago de Jiménez Díaz Foundation, in Madrid, where he has traveled to do a "Memorial Reading" of his project, and receive the award that the entity has been awarding to international scientists of the highest level since 1969: 30,000 euros in cash to continue his research. For 5 years, Karikó will be part of the Foundation's executive committee.
Drew Weissman, Robert Langer and you were the favorites to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine last year, but it didn't happen. Do you have hopes of achieving it this year?
It's not that important. I know that from the outside it has generated a lot of expectation but I assure you that I have not experienced it like that. People in general like to be recognized, but I am not that profile, I would be very ashamed. The situation of being asked when the Nobel is for reminds me a lot of my mother who, since I was a student, she always told me that she deserved it for everything she put into me and how hard she worked (laughs). I told him: "Mom, all scientists work very hard, and that's not why they get the Nobel" For me that was nothing more than mother's love. When she told me, I answered her that how they were going to give me a Nobel if she wasn't even a teacher, what's more, she hadn't even finished her degree! Now I feel the same: I don't have a team, I'm alone. I am a scientist who is looking forward to the arrival of July to spend a month taking care of my baby granddaughter, that I have only seen when he was born and by video call.
What would it mean to you?
I remember that when I was in high school, in 1973, I received an award, a medal. Until 2021 I did not receive the next one. It's been 50 years, so figure if I'm used to living without prizes. Since 2021, it has been one after another. From one end of the planet to the other end, from New York to Vietnam. I am very grateful for each and every one of them, but I admit that I have not looked for them. The funniest part of the prizes is taking my family, or inviting friends who live in that country. My husband, daughter and son-in-law enjoy it very much. My mother died five years ago, the truth is that he could only have wanted the Nobel for her, because of the illusion he had made of her.
You have been researching messenger RNA for more than 30 years. Why did you choose this field?
Well, what I'm going to say doesn't look very good but I didn't choose it (laughs), it was coincidence. In college, in Hungary, you had to choose an area of laboratory work and I would have chosen gene therapy – which was the field of greatest interest at the time – but I was late and there was only one place left in the area of “lipids”. » – that was what was written on the door of the laboratory – so that's where I ended up. Lipids and specifically liposomes are closely related to DNA, and I worked for 7 years in the DNA team. This was more than 40 years ago. We started using them to encapsulate DNA and introduce it into cells. That captivated me, and when I graduated in 1978, I started doing research in the RNA lab. I started by synthesizing short strands of RNA and gradually learned what I needed to know to manipulate it. correctly.
How did BioNTech contact you?
It was ten years ago, when I was working at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia). That was the time when Moderna, CureVac and other biotech companies were starting to emerge, and they made a presentation there to show their advances. I wanted to go and investigate CureVac because it was the only one that at the time had mRNA clinical trials in advanced stages (with humans). The person I wanted to work with at CureVac was gone, and had started working for BioNTech. To give you an idea, at that time they didn't even have a website, so I couldn't even find out about the company. When I arrived, my contact no longer worked there, but I stayed for 9 years.
The pandemic is over, but the future of mRNA vaccines is only just beginning. Could you explain to us which are the most advanced projects? HIV, malaria, hepatitis, flu...
The most important thing is that the mRNA platform allows the development of vaccines against all types of viruses and bacteria at an affordable price. Moderna is the one that is developing studies in more advanced phases of mRNA vaccines against different viruses. Specifically, in January it announced good results from a phase III trial for its prototype against the respiratory syncytial virus (VRS) in adults 60 years of age or older. The vaccine achieved an efficacy against lower respiratory tract infections of 83.7%, with a good tolerance and safety profile. They are also advanced (phase III) in a vaccine against four influenza strains recommended by the World Health Organization. Pfizer/BioNTech also has one – which is already in phase III – and which they hope to have approved in time for the next flu season in the northern hemisphere, in the fall of 2024. Regarding the HIV, Moderna has two human trials underway with its mRNA vaccine prototype. In the field of bacterial diseases, Moderna has just started a study to obtain a Vaccine against the bacterium that causes Lyme disease (the "borrelia burgdorferi" transmitted by a type of tick). The most interesting part of the mRNA platform is that it allows you to work in a completely different way, much more efficient.
And what is that mode?
The idea is that we do not have to achieve an immune response in the body for the antibodies to be produced, but we directly introduce the molecule that will give the order to the body for a short period of time to produce the antigen against which we want the antibody is produced.
Progress is also being made against some types of cancer, such as melanoma or pancreatic cancer. Do you think we can be optimistic?
Messenger RNA vaccines were originally targeted at cancer, but their use against infectious diseases took off in the pandemic. Instead of using a vaccine to try to prevent or shrink a tumor, they aim to reduce the chances of recurrence of high-risk cancer. In human trials, the important thing is that the mRNA encodes the antibodies, so it can recognize cancer-related proteins. BioNTech has two studies underway using mRNA technology, but the recombinant proteins required to develop them are very expensive. Besides, it is very difficult to identify the mutations that are behind the disease, because they are not naturally represented in our DNA. Thus, I don't think it's possible that we will have vaccines against cancer in 2030, as I have seen it said. We will have to wait much longer.
I will interview her again when they give her the Nobel...
(laughs) Of course. What I think is really important to convey to society is that trust the scientific method, not the people, the method.