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'To be a scientist is a joy': How a Hungarian biochemist helped revolutionize mRNA

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TORONTO -

Scientists generally don't seek the limelight, but Dr. Katalin Kariko has been thrust right into it. The once obscure biochemist is now on the covers of magazines and newspapers because of her role in developing mRNA vaccine technology.

An idea she started working on in the 1990s when no one thought it would work.

“They said: ‘Oh, poor Kati,’” Kariko told CTV News. “Because people just knew about [how] the RNA degrades, but I could make RNA and it didn't degrade.”

She grew up daughter to a butcher, in a poor town near Budapest, where she lived in one room with her family for the first 10 years of her life. During this time, she also learned the skills for success there: determination, hard work and a positive attitude.

“We learned from our parents that hard work is part of life,” she said.

Now, she is a senior vice president at BioNtech, the German company that worked with Pfizer to develop one of the vaccines credited with saving lives across the world during this pandemic.

But it took many years of toiling on research others put little stock into before her work bore fruition.

“I was working in the shadow of the gene therapy and people who work with DNA,” she said.

Even though progress on her work was incremental at times, she knew that that progress was still happening.

“That kept me going and I could see that it would be good for something,” she said. “That's what was driving me.”

After earning a PhD in biology, she put in long hours, not for fame or fortune, but because the science was fun for her.

“To be a scientist is a joy,” Kariko said. “I didn't care that my salary was less. That was enough. I didn't starve and so it was good.

“If somebody wants to have a lot of money, [they] shouldn’t be scientists, but if somebody wants to have the joy and fun, everyday life, [they] should be a scientist.”

She worked in Europe and then the U.S. as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, but was denied funding for her own research. Several times, she was demoted or fired.

However, she holds no grudges.

“You will see, every picture I'm smiling, I was happy,” she said, adding that she learned to see every setback or lost job as a new opportunity.

That optimistic outlook kept her going.

“I listened to the constructive criticism because I like to get the advice, but when it was just not that constructive, that I ignored,” she said.

Stress she saw as a motivator, citing the work of Hans Selye, who coined the term.

“He said that you need stress,” Kariko said. “Believe it or not, you need stress because you were not getting up in the morning. The positive stress which encouraged you, that you are [going to] look forward to the day, because you will learn today the result of that experiment, […] so that kind of stimulation you need.”

Then, in 2013, she moved to Germany to work with a little known company -- BioNtech -- to work on an mRNA flu shot technology that quickly pivoted to produce a COVID-19 vaccine when the pandemic struck.

“If I wouldn't have been fired three, four times for my job, I wouldn't be here,” she said. “I had to even thank people, everybody who made my life miserable, because [without them] I wouldn't be here actually.”

Kariko says she is thankful to have been part of the large number of scientists who contributed to create these vaccines, which have shown clear signs of protecting against severe COVID-19.

“I always felt so much respect for all of these people who did work before us,” she said. “I respect all of those people, and I thank them today.”

The work of other scientists in the field and related fields allowed Kariko and a close collaborator, Dr. Drew Weissman, to take their mRNA technology beyond the petri dish and make it start to work in living models. The big step forward was when they swapped a key molecule in their mRNA, which protected it from a body’s immune system.

The concept of being in the spotlight is new to Kariko, who had always been happiest at a lab bench, working away.

“But getting in the spotlight, I also realized that we as scientists did not talk to the public,” she said. “We like to talk to each other because we understand each other easy and we use terms that the average person would not understand.”

She said scientists had to “learn that language,” to try and explain the work to the average person. That barrier of communication is one of the reasons that Kariko is angered by anti-vaxxers who seek to scare people away from getting the vaccine.

She pointed out that unlike scientists, they do not have to worry about communicating accurately and truthfully.

“I watched those anti vaxxers […] they are so calm and they are so confident and they are saying [such] stupid things with [such] conviction,” she said. “And what they say is so trivial. And then everybody will say: ‘Yeah, he is right. Yeah.’ So that's not good.”

She pointed out that big voices in the anti-vaccine world are often motivated by money.

“People always want to make money on other people who believe things, and listen, that's what happened here, in the United States, those doctors who are saying that, do not take the vaccine, they offer you something they sell.

“And so that's horrible because there are innocent people [who] listen, and then they pay the price. So I learned that as a scientist, we have to educate the public.”

The scientist now rarely turns down interview requests.

She’s won more than three dozen awards this year alone, all while becoming a new grandmother and helping to chase treatments for cancer, MS, Lupus and malaria, using the same mRNA technology that might have never come to fruition were it not for an incredibly determined scientist.  

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