Katalin Karikó, the Nobel Prize winner who escaped from Hungary with money sewn into a teddy bear

A road full of pitfalls along the way in life until you get to obtain the most prestigious prize in your field. It is the story of a scientist who never gave up on difficulties, the story of Katalin Karikó. This is the Hungarian biochemist, pioneer of mRNA, who today was awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize for Medicine together with the American immunologist Drew Weissman, thanks to the discoveries that paved the way, in record time, for anti-Covid vaccines .

That “precious” bear

To realize his dream, that of transforming messenger RNA into vaccines and therapies, Karikò had to overcome several sacrifices and some adversities. For example, she was forced to leave her country, Hungary, in rather complicated years such as those of the Iron Curtain. This choice was made when the research program of the university for which she collaborated had run out of funds. It was 1985. At that moment in her life, the biochemist decided to leave her homeland to pursue an academic career elsewhere. Together with her little daughter and her husband, she was a real “lifeline” in her time. To leave for the United States, she managed to get some money from the sale of the family car on the black market. Money then sewn into a teddy bear that kept her daughter company.

From Hungary to the United States

She was born 30 years earlier, on January 17, 1955, in Hungary. His father was a butcher and his mother was an accountant. Grown up, she Katalin manages to get her PhD from the University of Szeged, working hard as a postdoctoral researcher in the Biological Research Center. Since her first steps in the academic world, the light that inspired her was that of mRNA (messenger RNA), i.e. the genetic script that carries DNA instructions to the heart of the proteins of every single cell. Having married and with a small daughter, in 1985, in an economically complicated moment for her research activity in Hungary, the biochemist experienced the first “sliding door” of her life. That is, the offer from Temple University in Philadelphia for another postdoctoral fellowship. Together with her engineer husband, Bela Francia, she decided to fly to the United States to land at Temple. But Hungary would have allowed her to take out of the country only 100 dollars, an evidently inadequate amount to start a new adventure, both in life and professionally. So, having sold the family car, Karikó decides to sew the over 1,200 dollars obtained into her daughter’s teddy bear. And chase her dream.

The meeting with Weissman

Once she arrives in the USA, work and study completely absorb the scientist, so much so that she spends a lot of time in her laboratory, sometimes even sleeping in it. She moved on to another university but a new critical moment was about to arrive, in 1995. “Her husband was stuck in Hungary due to visa problems, she had just had a cancer scare”, we read in her biography, “and the “The University of Pennsylvania had just demoted her from the path to a tenured professorship. With no grant coming in to support her work, Karikó began to think about giving up.” Three years later, it’s 1998, pure chance brings together two brilliant minds. Karikó and Weissman meet (and will do so other times) in front of a photocopier. She, courageous, launches a challenge to her colleague by saying that she could produce any mRna. Weissman was intrigued and from there the collaboration that led to today at the Nobel.

The German adventure

But the challenges for the scientist were not over yet. “About 10 years ago I was here in October because I was expelled from Penn, forced to withdraw,” the scientist said. Supporting her was her husband, who advised her to look elsewhere. “In Germany, I discovered that maybe BioNTech was the right place.” The man has no doubts: “‘Try it and I’ll make sure you won’t regret it.” For 9 years the biochemist commuted with Germany.

Password “persevere”

“Persevere. I believe that the first 14 years of life, your genes, your parents, your teachers, your friends, shape you, the person you will be. As a woman and mother, I try to tell my fellow scientists that they don’t have to choose between having a family” and one’s dream related to science, said Karikò. “You can have it, you don’t have to over-assist your child.” So a message to the new generations. Many young people, he said, “give up because they see that their friends or colleagues are making progress, they seem to do less and somehow get a higher salary and get promoted. I tell them: if you notice, you’ve already taken your attention away from what you can change. When I got fired, I didn’t spend time feeling sorry for myself and saying things like ‘Why me?’ concentrate all the energy you have to spend, to try to understand: what next? What can I do?”.