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Nierenberg Prize Awarded to Biochemist Katalin Karikó for Pioneering Research on COVID-19 Vaccines

The public is invited to attend Nobel Prize winner Katalin Karikó’s free lecture at Scripps Institution of Oceanography on March 25

Headshot of Katalin Karikó

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Hungarian-American biochemist and researcher Katalin Karikó has been selected by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego as the recipient of the 2023 Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest. Karikó also recently received last year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her groundbreaking work on COVID-19 vaccines, alongside co-collaborator Drew Weissman, a renowned physician and researcher at Penn Medicine.

She is best known for her research on messenger RNA — the genetic material that tells our bodies how to make proteins — and the development of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. Karikó and Weissman MD, PhD invented the modified mRNA technology used in Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s vaccines to prevent COVID-19 infection.

The public is invited to attend the award ceremony and a presentation from Karikó in a free event on March 25 at 6 p.m. at the Robert Paine Scripps Forum for Science, Society and the Environment on the Scripps Oceanography campus.

Her presentation, “Developing mRNA for therapy,” will look at the progress and development of mRNA over the past six decades. Karikó will discuss the journey from the discovery of mRNA in 1961 to its groundbreaking milestone as the first FDA-approved mRNA product in the form of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines in 2021.

The Nierenberg Prize was created through a generous gift from the Nierenberg family to honor William A. Nierenberg (1919-2000), a renowned national science leader who served Scripps Oceanography as director from 1965 to 1986. He was a leading expert in several fields of underwater research and warfare and was known for his work in low-energy nuclear physics. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1971 and was the recipient of numerous awards and honors for professional research and public service.

The Nierenberg Prize, which includes a bronze medal and $25,000, is awarded for outstanding contributions to science in the public interest. Previous awardees include biochemist Jennifer Doudna and renowned geneticist Svante Pääbo, both also recipients of the Nobel Prize; former NASA astronaut and administrator Charles Bolden; filmmaker Sir David Attenborough; and primatologist Dame Jane Goodall, among other luminaries.

“I feel deeply honored to receive the Nierenberg Prize,” Karikó said. “I did not have the fortune to know William Nierenberg, but we have a lot in common. My life, similarly to his, had a very humbled beginning. And just like his parents, I also immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe.”

Karikó received her bachelor’s degree in biology and her PhD in biochemistry from University of Szeged in Hungary. After receiving her degrees, she worked with a research team at the Biological Research Center of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

In 1985, she immigrated to the United States and began collaborating with Weissman. A few years later, Karikó joined the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, where she now serves as an adjunct professor of neurosurgery. From 2013 to 2022, she held the role of senior vice president at BioNTech, located in Mainz, Germany.

For four decades, Karikó has researched messenger RNA technology, focusing on RNA-mediated mechanisms with the ultimate goal of developing in vitro-transcribed (IVT) mRNA for protein therapy. During IVT, genetic information is transcribed from DNA to RNA, and the generated mRNA transcript is used to produce proteins in cells.

After investigating RNA-mediated immune activation through several experiments, Karikó and Weissman discovered a way to modify mRNA. In this modified version, they encapsulate the mRNA in a certain lipid that prevents inflammation and allows mRNA to work without any interference. This groundbreaking discovery was instrumental in ensuring the safety and efficacy of FDA-approved COVID-19 mRNA vaccines developed by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna, playing a vital role in fighting the pandemic. Karikó is co-inventor on a total of 14 patents granted by the United States.

“The Nierenberg family is thrilled with the selection of Dr. Katalin Karikó as the 2023 winner of the Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest. Her thirty year quest against all odds to develop the practical use of messenger RNA literally changed the world with the introduction of vaccines for COVID-19,” said Nicolas Nierenberg, the son of the late William A. Nierenberg for whom the prize is named. “Dr. Karikó is an inspiration to all of us and we are looking forward to hearing her story.” 

Karikó and Weissman also worked together to found RNARx in 2006, a company dedicated to developing mRNA therapeutics for a wide range of diseases. 

Along with Kariko’s pioneering research of COVID-19 vaccines, she and colleagues at BioNTech demonstrated functional use of nucleoside-modified mRNA, encoding antibodies targeting cancer and infectious diseases. Further research on this novel mRNA technology has also shown promise for the treatment of autoimmune diseases. 

Karikó initiated a clinical study in which tumors of patients were injected with modified mRNAs encoding cytokines, which promoted potent antitumor immunity and tumor eradication at local and remote sites. 

In the last two years, Karikó has received many prestigious awards celebrating her mRNA work, including the Japan Prize, the Horwitz Prize, the Paul Ehrlich Prize, the Benjamin Franklin Medal, the Canada Gairdner International Award, the Kovalenko Medal, the Tang Prize, the Warren Alpert Prize, the Princess Asturias Award, the BBVA Frontiers Award, the Breakthrough Prize and the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award.

Seating is limited and registration is required for this event. If you are interested in attending, please RSVP in advance.

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