The Vilcek Foundation announces Dr. Katalin Karikó as the recipient of the 2022 Vilcek Prize for Excellence in Biotechnology for her pioneering research in mRNA vaccine technology. Katalin’s discoveries directly contributed to the development of mRNA vaccines that are being deployed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Awarded annually, the Vilcek Prize for Excellence includes a cash award of $100,000 and a commemorative diploma.
Katalin is the senior vice president at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals and adjunct associate professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania. Born in Szolnok, Hungary, Katalin moved to the United States in 1985 to pursue postdoctoral studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.
“The Vilcek Prize for Excellence was conceived to honor individuals whose contributions benefit society on a broad level,” says Marica Vilcek, vice chairman and secretary of the Vilcek Foundation. “Dr. Karikó’s work has obviously had a tremendous impact on science and medicine—but the development of mRNA vaccines based on her research also has a profound humanitarian significance as this enables people and communities to return to normal activities safely.”
Traditional vaccines trigger an immune response by putting a weakened or inactivated infectious agent into the human body. In contrast, mRNA vaccines teach human cells to make a protein that mimics a protein that is a defining feature of the infectious agent being targeted. Once the protein has been made, the human immune system responds to the new protein by making antibodies. After the body has developed antibodies, if the infectious agent is introduced to the body, the antibodies will be able to recognize and destroy it.
Scientists had long been skeptical about whether mRNA vaccines could be developed; synthetic mRNA is fragile, and the introduction of mRNA to the human immune system can trigger an inflammatory response. Working with immunologist Drew Weissman in the mid-2000s, Katalin demonstrated that modifying mRNA nucleosides rendered mRNA effective and safe for use in vaccination.
Katalin’s breakthrough enabled the development of mRNA vaccines, most notably the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. Using mRNA technology, these two vaccines target the spike protein that is the defining characteristic of the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2. Both vaccines have proven more than 94% effective in preventing symptomatic disease, and are now being administered around the world to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Dr. Karikó’s pioneering work is responsible for the development of novel vaccines against COVID-19,” says Vilcek Foundation Chairman and CEO Jan Vilcek. “This formidable accomplishment, based on four decades of her research on the therapeutic use of messenger RNA, promises to stop the worldwide spread of the Coronavirus pandemic and save millions of lives.”
The Vilcek Prize for Excellence is awarded as part of the 2022 Vilcek Foundation Prizes program. In recognition of the profound impact of Katalin’s work, the Vilcek Foundation made the decision to announce the recipient of the 2022 Vilcek Prize for Excellence in advance of the rest of the 2022 Vilcek Foundation Prizes. The recipients of the 2022 Vilcek Foundation Prizes in Biomedical Science and Dance will be announced on September 7, 2021.