Katalin Kariko, a Hungarian biochemist, has been given a $1.5 million award in the Breakthrough Prize in life sciences. She had never earned more than about $60,000 a year
A researcher who struggled to find funding for decades but whose work is at the heart of the coronavirus vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna has won science’s most valuable prize.
Katalin Kariko, a Hungarian biochemist, was awarded the $1.5 million (£1.08 million) Breakthrough prize in life sciences. During an academic career spent largely in American universities she had never earned more than about $60,000 (£43,000) a year — but her work with RNA, a genetic material, has been crucial to the two vaccines.
Kariko told The Times that she would put her prize money into further research. She is hopeful that mRNA vaccines can now be used to tackle diseases including malaria and influenza, and that the underlying technology will feed into therapies for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and cancer.
Having spent most of her career in obscurity, Kariko, 66, is now seen as a likely Nobel prize winner. “I am not an angry person; I don’t think about this as ‘redemption’, because I always had one or two colleagues that supported me,” she said. “Somebody had to pay my salary. It was only $60,000 but so what? I did but didn’t care much. I was always working, always reading, reading, reading.”
She grew up in Hungary, the daughter of a butcher, and moved to the US during the 1980s. “We had an adobe house, we didn’t have running water, no television set, no refrigerator. It was very simple, you know running without shoes all the time. It was happiness, that’s what,” she said of her childhood. “You don’t feel that you are in communism or whatever, or behind the Iron Curtain — the family unit, loving parents, sister. Now, that’s what counts.”
Kariko first believed that mRNA could be used to tackle disease more than 30 years ago. The material is key to the process whereby cells translate their DNA code into proteins. The mRNA Covid vaccines exploit this by prompting the body to produce copies of a protein found on the outside of the coronavirus. This trains the immune system on how to fend off the real thing.
However, mRNA causes an inflammatory reaction when injected. In 2004 Kariko and her colleague Drew Weissman discovered that they could use a slightly altered form to overcome this problem.
The Breakthrough Prize Foundation said that she and Weissman, who will also be awarded $1.5 million, had persevered despite widespread skepticism to create “a technology that is not only vital in the fight against the coronavirus today but holds vast promise for future vaccines and treatments for a wide range of diseases including HIV, cancer, autoimmune and genetic diseases”. Since 2013 Kariko has worked with BioNTech, a German company that partnered with Pfizer to make a coronavirus vaccine.
Other winners included two British researchers, Sir Shankar Balasubramanian and Sir David Klenerman, who will share $3 million between them. Both professors at Cambridge University, are the inventors of Next Generation Sequencing (NGS), a technology that has transformed genetics research.
It has led to a 100,000-fold increase in the speed with which DNA code can be transcribed. This speed has made it a cornerstone of a nascent revolution in “personalized medicine” in which treatments are tailored to an individual’s genetics. It has also been at the forefront of the urgent effort to identify new coronavirus variants.
The first human genome was sequenced in 2000 after a decade of work that cost a billion dollars. Today a single machine using NGS technology can sequence 48 genomes in 48 hours, at a cost of less than $1,000 each. Earlier this year the pair described how the technology was dreamt up during a “beer summit” at the Panton Arms in Cambridge.
The Breakthrough Prize was created by a group of technology billionaires, including Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google; Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, and Yuri Milner, a Russian-Israeli venture capitalist, and physicist. Yesterday’s prizes were worth a total of $15.75 million.
Other winners included Hidetoshi Katori and Jun Ye. Working independently, they have helped to produce “quantum clocks” so accurately that they would lose less than a second if operated for 15 billion years. Also known as optical lattice clocks, these are seen as potentially useful in fields such as quantum computing and in the hunt for “dark matter”.