Doctor Katalin Kariko’s story has all the ingredients of a fascinating Netflix/Amazon limited series show. As a young biology student in 1976, she was fascinated by the potential of messenger RNA to create vaccines and drugs. After her PhD, she moved to the United States to realize this dream, fell out with her first boss at Temple University (who attempted to get her deported) before getting a job at UPenn.
But, she was struggling with getting grants as there were significant obstacles with making mRNA work in practice. Faced with bosses losing patience, a cancer diagnosis, and immigration issues, she decided to take a demotion with a salary less than that of a lab technician rather than lose her job.
A chance meeting with a respected immunologist – Drew Weissman – who had just moved to UPenn researcher changed everything. She found a partner who believed in her and was willing to fund her research and collaborate. By 2005, they had found a safe way to use mRNA in vaccines. They published a paper announcing this and this was followed by… the sound of crickets. No one seemed to be paying attention.
But, someone was. In 2010, Derrick Rossi, a Stanford post doc, had co-founded a company called “Moderna” with the goal of using their findings.
In 2013, UPenn rejected her request for Professorship again and laughed her out of the room when she said she’d be accepting an SVP position at a small Germany company – BioNTech – that had been licensing their technology. “They don’t even have a website” – they said.
We all know how it has played out. But, it took 44 years from when she first decided to dedicate her career to mRNA, 25 years after she took a demotion, and 15 years after publishing a paper that will probably result in a Nobel prize before it all began to work out.
There are so many lessons from this heroic story. But, one that that stood out for me was about how it often takes decades before becoming an overnight sensation.