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Rick Morton on the woman who spent decades advocating for the unproven technology behind the vaccine, and how it helped save humanity.

The scientist who saved your life

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The Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the most disruptive and devastating events in recent history.

But it also led to a series of incredible scientific breakthroughs, including the fastest ever development of a new vaccine. 

Now, the technology behind the Covid-19 vaccine, which has already saved millions of lives, is being adapted to find solutions for previously incurable diseases.

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton on the woman who spent decades advocating for the unproven technology behind the vaccine, and how it helped save humanity.

 

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton.

 
Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

The Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the most disruptive and devastating events in recent history.

 

But it’s also led to a series of incredible scientific breakthroughs, including the fastest ever development of a new vaccine. 

 

Now, the technology behind the Covid-19 vaccine, which has already saved millions of lives, is being adapted to find solutions for previously incurable diseases.

 

Today, Senior Reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton, on the woman who spent decades advocating for the unproven technology underpinning the vaccine, and how it helped save humanity.

 

It’s Tuesday, December 14. 

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
Rick, who is Katalin Karikó? 

 

RICK:
Katalin Karikó is a 66 year old scientist, she grew up behind the Iron Curtain in communist Hungary in a small town, 10,000 people in the middle of nowhere. She describes it. And she's the daughter of a butcher and a bookkeeper. 

 

And she's changed the world, turned it on its head. In fact, she's expected to win, if not the next Nobel prize, a Nobel prize and soon. 

 

But only a few years ago, no one was interested in her work. No one. 

 

And the story of her life and her achievements is really, really extraordinary. I find it breathtaking, to be quite honest, and she's one of the most fascinating characters in science that we've had in a very long time.

 

RUBY:
Mm and it sounds like her rise has been pretty phenomenal. Rick, so can we start at the beginning? Can you tell me about how she got started in her scientific career? Where did it all begin? 

 

RICK:
Every kid is a scientist, right, and Karikó was always interested in science, in fact, I mention that her dad was a butcher. She was always watching him slaughter the pigs. 

 

Archival tape -- Katalin Karikó:
“I was always there, and whereas my older sister who was three years older and my mother usually were inside the house, they didn’t want to see that part.” 

 

RICK:
Her mother would tell her that you were always there, you were fascinated by the insides. Now that sounds a bit gory, but you know, they had no running water, no television in this village. So science is what happens in the world around you. 

 

Archival tape -- Katalin Karikó:
“And of course, we had all of the happiness, and I didn't know how many things we didn't have because the other neighbours didn't have.” 

 

RICK:
By her own admission, she says that she wasn't that great at school early on, but by high school, by the eighth grade, she was winning science competitions. 

 

Archival tape -- Katalin Karikó:
“When I was 14, I was the third best in Hungary in the country and I knew the names of the plants. I love plants and when I went to the university, actually, I also mentioned that I want to work with plants and then everybody said that, oh, that's so boring [laughs] but I love plants!”

 

RICK:
And she went on to study biology in college. And then she went to graduate school. And it was there that she learnt about a molecule that scientists had only discovered in the 60s when Katalin was just five years old - messenger RNA.

 

Archival tape -- Katalin Karikó:
“And of course I was an undergraduate and everything was new for me. And this was very exciting…” 

 

RICK:
And Karikó was fascinated by these molecules. She thought they had infinite potential. 

 

Archival tape -- Katalin Karikó:
“And for my PhD I went to the RNA Lab…” 

 

RICK:
And she managed to see that at a very young age, and she dedicated her entire career to this thing that really no one understood. 

 

RUBY:
OK Rick, so what exactly is messenger RNA and what was it that Katalin saw in it? What was the potential that she identified? 

 

RICK:
Yeah so just really quickly, DNA was the big breakthrough, we all know DNA, double strand molecule that encodes our genetic profile, our genome and that was discovered by Watson and Crick. Everyone thought it was kind of like the overarching code for life. If you understand DNA, you understand everything that wasn't quite true.

 

In fact, RNA, Ribonucleic Acid, which is a single strand compared to DNA, is double strand molecule, actually did a lot of the work in the cell and its messenger RNA that takes the overarching rulebook of DNA into the cell to the ribosomes, which is kind of the factory. And that's what tells the Ribosomes's to print more, produce these proteins and chains of amino acids.

 

Now, the key insight here is that if you can understand that process well enough and then control it first in a lab and then in vivo, as they call it in the body, then you can actually have tremendous breakthroughs in medical science. 

 

Now, the great conundrum for Karikó and researchers like her was that the mRNA died or was degraded when it got into human cells, and that's not useful when you're trying to actually harness it. 

 

So Karikó was convinced that this technology was the key to solving most human ills, but they needed to get over this roadblock. And you know, the lab she was working in in Hungary lost its funding in 1985. She couldn't continue this work. She knew the potential was there, but she needed to keep working. 

 

So, she couldn't progress at work, and she left her home country. So she packed up with a husband and two year old daughter at the time and moved to the United States. 

 

RUBY:
Ok so she thought there should be a way for messenger RNA to be replicated - and essentially to carry out certain functions in the human body - and if that was possible then there might be all sorts of medical applications for the technology. But it sounds like within Hungary there wasn’t a lot of support for that hypothesis. So what happened when she went to the US? 

 

RICK:
It did not go as she had planned. She suffered setback after setback after setback. It was actually quite astonishing how much bad luck she had in terms of the institutional application of her science and Karikó never received a single medical research grant for her work. She lost repeated positions at institutions around the world and in the United States of America, and at one point was threatened with deportation by a former supervisor because she accepted another job and didn't tell him fast enough. And both the job that she had accepted and the one that she was already in, were gone. So she was without work and technically an alien in the United States of America. 

 

She managed to get around that, thankfully at the last minute. But she was, you know, when she thought she had a career back on track with an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania. And then after a series of experiments that didn't go the way she wanted, she lost all funding. 

 

And you know, it was her dogged pursuit of research on mRNA technology that kind of led her to that position. And she couldn't convert the people around her, even though she knew in her own marrow that this was an excruciatingly exquisite technology. She couldn't convince the others, and they believed it was farfetched or impossible to actually translate into real world outcomes. 

 

RUBY:
Hmm. So is that what was going on here, Rick? Clearly, other people, other scientists and people who are in charge of handing out grants just weren't seeing what she was in terms of the potential of the technology. 

 

RICK:
That's part of it. Karikó is also really humble. She's methodical, but that didn't translate to all of the trappings of the system in which you have to be a showboater. You have to be good at grant writing. You have to be good at schmoozing. You have to be good at making sure you've got the right networks. And she didn't do any of those things because she was always in the lab.

 

RUBY:
Hmm. Yeah, it sounds tough. There's this technology that she, as you say, believes has huge potential. She knows that it does. And that's because it can literally instruct cells to do whatever you want them to do. That's the potential here. But no one else seems to be recognising that. And now, across two different countries, her home country and the U.S., she's struggling. She's failing to get support for her research. She's not getting grants. She's been demoted. So when do things start to turn around for her, Rick. 

 

RICK:
It's a slow road, but she has this massive breakthrough in 2005 where along with a colleague, Drew Weissman at the University of Pennsylvania, the two of them figure out a way to produce a modified mRNA molecule using nucleosides naturally occurring rather than synthetic that can be safely absorbed into human cells.

 

Archival tape -- Reporter:
“Are you just absolutely puzzled that nobody else is rushing in and having champagne together with you? I mean, this is really groundbreaking stuff that you're able to accomplish. Was that frustrating or puzzling or both?”

 

Archival tape -- Katalin Karikó:
“No, we didn't. I mean, when we had 2005 data and the paper came out, I, you know, Drew is a very calm person. And but he told me that the calls are coming in and they will invite us to talk. And it didn't happen…”

 

RICK:
And about 15 years later, it was this discovery that ended up being the key to creating a whole new scientific platform for vaccine delivery. And that was and is being injected into hundreds of millions of people, and playing perhaps the most important role in ending the COVID 19 pandemic. 

 

RUBY:
We’ll be back after this.

[Advertisement]

RUBY:
So Rick, Katalin and her colleagues, they finally figure out how to use messenger RNA in a way that can help save lives, but I imagine it wasn't as simple as going from that step to creating a vaccine, especially because at this time, I mean, Covid-19 didn't exist yet. So tell me about what happened next? 

 

RICK:
Yeah, I mean, it's the breakthrough itself is really in the structure of how this thing can operate. But to make a vaccine, you still need to know what to tell the cell to do. You need to know what proteins it needs to make. Now with some viruses that’s easier than with others.

 

So there were a bunch of things that really happened after this massive breakthrough that laid the groundwork for what would ultimately become the COVID 19 vaccine. 

 

Now, Katalin patented her discovery alongside Drew Weissman and set up a company to continue her research. That was ill fated. You might be picking up on a trend here with poor old Karikó’s career. 

 

RUBY:
So many setbacks, hmm… 

 

RICK:
So many setbacks, a lot of bad luck. But in 2013, she met the founder of a pharmaceutical company called BioNTech at a lecture. This is a German German start-up, and he offers her a job at the company, which she accepts because at this point, the university that she was at the University of Pennsylvania has stopped funding her. Now, a few years later, that BioNTech company starts working with Pfizer on a flu vaccine using the mRNA technology Katalin had developed. And then, of course, we kind of know the story now. COVID 19 hits, they realise they're in an incredibly unique position. They could use this exact same platform, the one that Katalin had been advocating for for decades. Essentially her entire adult life. And they know this is important. So they pivot to making this COVID 19 vaccine, and they do it really quickly. 

 

RUBY:
Mm-Hmm. So this technology that she's been kind of obsessed with for her whole career and hasn't given up on, despite no one else really believing in her, that turns out to actually be that the technology that will end the pandemic, it's amazing, Rick.

 

RICK:
It’s it’s… I mean, I've said this many times during our chats about vaccines and Covid-19, but this is, I think, one of the singular scientific achievements of humankind in terms of the scale and the lives saved. We will never know how many lives. Katalin Karikó’s invention has saved.

 

Archival tape -- Katalin Karikó:
“I recently received actually an email from the Retirement elderly Care Centre, and they described it one week after I received a vaccine that residents also received.”

 

RICK:
She tells this lovely story about an aged care home where they were waiting for their Pfizer vaccines, and not long after Karikó got hers on television, this aged care home, all their residents were vaccinated with Pfizer. And then there was an outbreak.

 

Archival tape -- Katalin Karikó:
“One week later there were infections, 70 people were positive and then nobody died.”

 

RICK:
And not a single one of them died. And they all wrote to her to say thank you. 

 

Archival tape -- Katalin Karikó:
“And they had a tshirt with my picture and they took the photo and they sent to me and they, you know, nothing and nothing can be as gratifying as seeing those people that are so happy that they they made it.” 

 

RICK:
And then they sent her messages again on Mother's Day because of the vaccine. They're allowed to catch up with their family and have visitors again. 

 

RUBY:
Oh wow.

 

RICK:
Yeah. And it's hearing those stories that actually makes it real. 

 

Archival tape -- Katalin Karikó:
“No matter what price you give me, nothing can generate that kind of feeling, you know, because this is coming from their heart.” 

 

RICK:
And the thing that I find fascinating about her own story is that she never gave up because she knew what science is. Science is not about winning every experiment or learning the thing that you set out to learn on any given day. In fact, it's about continuing to ask questions. You know, a good science experiment will actually raise new questions. And that's what her career is built on. She was just refining and refining and refining, universities in some cases, particularly in her case, they just couldn't see beyond these failures. You know, they thought the values were not useful, whereas she knew that it was just all part of a long plan to get this thing to work. And I just wish our institutions could back that. 

 

RUBY:
And at the end of it all, at the end of all of these failures and breakthroughs messenger RNA was adapted to fight COVID 19. But it does sound like it could do a lot of other things. I mean, that's kind of the whole point of this technology. You can adapt it and instruct cells to do what it is that you want it to do. So what else might be possible? 

 

RICK:
Oh, so many things. You know, messenger RNA has shown enormous potential for medical applications beyond Covid.

 

And so we're talking about vaccines and treatments for conditions, including cancer, you know, stroke. Necrotic wound healing when it comes to diabetic patients. Other types of viruses. 

 

Can you imagine how fast some of the progress will be made over the next five to 10 years on these things? I find that incredibly exciting, and that is the number one message I think, you know, yes, it's been a hellish two years and things have been terrible. But we get something out of it. 

 

RUBY:
Hmm. It's nice to think of something good coming out of the pandemic, Rick.

 

RICK:
Yeah. And like, I'm not just saying that I genuinely believe it. Like, I'm so excited by this stuff. 

 

It is just an astonishing story of human achievement, but also just the way the natural world works and the way that we are beginning to understand that. I mean, we are only at the beginning of that journey. 

 

RUBY:
Rick, thank you so much for your time. 

 

RICK:
Thanks, Ruby. Appreciate it.

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[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
Also in the news today,

 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed that international borders will reopen to visa holders from Wednesday, as planned.

 

International workers, students and tourists will be able to enter from December 15, after the original plan to reopen on December 1 was delayed by the Omicron variant.

 

And the Victorian government-owned logging agency, as well as it’s regulator, have been referred to the state's anti-corruption watchdog after the ABC revealed allegations of illegal logging on public land.

 

VicForests have denied the allegations of widespread illegal logging and said it has complied with the law.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See you tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends]

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.

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