The messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna for the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic incorporate critical foundational technology that arose from fundamental research and discoveries from biochemist Katalin Karikó and immunologist Drew Weissman at the University of Pennsylvania. Since December 2020, nearly 1 billion mRNA vaccine doses have been administered worldwide to combat the disease caused by SARS-CoV 2, a novel coronavirus discovered in 2019.
The genetic material in the human body that instructs cells to make proteins is called mRNA. At the heart of the COVID-19 vaccines is modified, synthetic mRNA that is delivered into the human body and instructs cells to make copies of the virus’ spike protein. Later, the body’s immune system will recognize the real virus upon exposure and a rapid immune response will occur to protect against severe disease.
Unmodified mRNA molecules are unable to slip past the body’s immune system, but Karikó and Weissman modified mRNA so it could avoid immediate immune detection, remain active longer and efficiently instruct cells to create antigens to protect against severe disease. Karikó and Weissman’s discovery in the early 2000s that exchanging one of the four building blocks of mRNA molecules, uridine, with pseudouridine created a modified mRNA with favorable qualities, including reduced adverse reactions. This fundamental discovery paved the way for modified mRNA to be potentially used in a wide array of future vaccines and treatments.
Karikó is a senior vice president at BioNTech and an adjunct professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania. At the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania from 1989 to 2013, her collaboration with Weissman began in 1997. Karikó is also a founding member of the International mRNA Health Conference, started in 2013. Karikó received her bachelor’s degree in biology (1978) and her doctorate in biochemistry (1982) from the University of Szeged in her native Hungary. She was with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences before immigrating to the United States in 1985.