This past week, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, and Medicine, with Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman receiving the Nobel Prize in Medicine this year. Their research at the University of Pennsylvania proved vital in developing mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines. Penn President Liz Magill praised the scientists, calling them “brilliant researchers who represent the epitome of scientific inspiration and determination.” However, for Dr. Karikó especially, the university and its research community were not always supportive. While working at Penn, she struggled to receive grants and collaborated with colleagues to financially support her mRNA research; Karikó was told she would have to be demoted out of the tenure track, which she accepted to continue research at the university.
Ultimately, Karikó’s research did not appeal to or convince the scientific community: the field focused on the more stable DNA molecule, and she had yet no success in treating animals with mRNA due to its immunogenicity. Eventually, Karikó collaborated with Weissman, who was interested in using mRNA to develop vaccines. In 2005, they published a paper where they could successfully modify the mRNA backbone to prevent an immune reaction, thus demonstrating the safety of mRNA therapeutics. A later publication confirmed that this modified mRNA induced higher production of the desired proteins. Nevertheless, Karikó and Weissman’s work went relatively unnoticed; Funding and publications were sparse despite their continued efforts, and Karikó states that she was forced to retire from Penn in 2013. In academic research, where “publish or perish” is a longstanding motto, mRNA therapeutics could have met an early end if it had not spurred the interest of Moderna and BioNTech.
Karikó’s story reflects the contradiction of breeding innovation in academia: researchers are expected to generate groundbreaking work while competing for limited funding. With over 200 research universities in the United States, funding organizations like the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health must draw the line between possible and impossible proposals. Certainly, granting funding to unrealistic or irrelevant research projects would put these federal organizations’ credibility into question and reduce future available funding. However, that model may leave researchers like Karikó behind if they do not have internal university support. Researchers could break away from academic institutions in favor of a start-up model, but their original funding institutions may restrict them. When Karikó and Weissman attempted to found their own company, Penn had already received patents on their work at the university. Karikó and Weissman did not have enough independent funding to reach a licensing agreement with Penn, and their company eventually shut down. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, it is estimated that Penn has reaped hundreds of millions of dollars from licensing the mRNA vaccine and associated royalties. Karikó has since returned to Penn as an adjunct professor, but it took a worldwide pandemic for the institution to praise her work. The seemingly endless fight for funding and recognition in academia is a significant limitation on innovation.
Aside from doubts about the basis of her research, Karikó’s attitude reportedly strained her relationships with colleagues. She would be the first to critique work, discard other’s failed samples without permission, and was “sensitive” to perceived insults. Colleagues cited a particular incident at a Christmas party, where Karikó became angry when another professor mentioned that she was working for him rather than with him. However, these reports raise whether Karikó’s identity affected the academic community’s perception of her. Her bluntness and defensiveness may have been seen as negatives for an immigrant woman, while the same actions could be reframed and praised as honesty and pride in an American man. It would not be the first time a woman in scientific research was disregarded or criticized: Karikó is one of only thirteen women to have won a Nobel Prize in Medicine out of 227 total recipients. In truth, the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Physics, and Economic Sciences have even lower percentages of woman recipients, with most women awarded in the late 20th-21st century. As the percentage of women and nonbinary people in research increases, their ideas must be evaluated fairly. Otherwise, we could miss the next big innovation.