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We’ve had a raft of fictional superhero movies in the last few years.
Captain America, the X-Men, Wonderwoman, all saving the world from destruction.
But there’s one stunningly courageous Wonderwoman most of us have never heard of – a real woman who actually has saved the world, or at least, millions of people on it.
Her name is Katalin Kariko. Born in Hungary, she’s played an absolutely pivotal role in the development of the world’s most effective vaccines against the coronavirus.
Back in the 1970s, a discovery was made. Researchers found a molecule in every living cell that takes the message from genes, to the parts of the cell that make proteins. Katalin recognised immediately that this could be a game changer. If you could change the message, you could instruct cells to make anything, including their own medicines. It had infinite potential.
She had no idea at the time but she was embarking on a decades long career of doubt, disinterest and dismissal from others.
THEY TOLD HER TO GIVE UP
No one knew how to create mRNA. She was told that even if you could make it, it wouldn’t last long enough, and even if it lasted, there was no way to get it into a living cell. It just couldn’t be done.
Katalin agreed. It couldn’t be done now. But she was going to find a way.
The Hungarian lab she was in soon lost its funding. She lost her job. But she was so committed to the idea that mRNA held phenomenal potential to save lives that she refused to give up. It was too important.
SHE PURSUED HER VISION
So she took her husband and two year old daughter to the US to continue her research.
Progress was slow and she had setback after setback. Without academic status and publications, she couldn’t get the grants she needed, it was hard to find anyone who could share her vision and when they did, they often moved onto better paying jobs.
And then she had a chance encounter over a photocopier. She met Andrew Weissman, a researcher working with an Anthony Fauci. When asked what she did she said she was working with Rna, and she could make it do anything. This may one of the most important elevator pitches ever made!
SHE FOUND ALLIES
Now Andrew Weissman had the funding she needed. He understood the potential and hired her to work with him. Together they made a breakthough – they were able to use mrna to instruct living cells outside of an animal to create something they would never have done otherwise. it had never been done before.
And the world ignored them. No one got it. Initially.
Finally, in July of 2013 she met the founder of BioNtech after giving a talk. He got it and offered her a job on the same day. She said yes.
WHEN COVID-19 ARRIVES THEY ARE READY
Katalin worked with BioNtech to develop an mRNA flu vaccine and were beginning clinical trials when coronavirus hit. They realised that mRNA was going to be the key to beating coronavirus. They immediately switched their efforts and quickly created a new vaccine that within the year would be proven to be over 90% effective. The moderna mrna vaccine also rests on katalin karikos research.
Of course there were many many other people who have contributed to the development of this breakthrough vaccine. But Dr Katina kariko’s research is pivotal.
A STORY OF RELENTLESS COURAGE TO SAVE LIVES
As I reflect on this incredible tale, I’m struck by her courage
- the courage to pursue her dream when others said it couldn’t be done
- the courage to persist for decades whilst repeatedly losing jobs, funding and support.
- and the courage to boldly introduce herself and share her vision over a photocopier.
Thank you Katalin Kariko, a real world WonderWoman.