Katalin Karikó, a Hero of the Battle to Fight COVID-19, Honored by the Vilcek Foundation

Katalin Karikó, an adjunct professor of neurosurgery at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the scientific team whose innovative research established the foundation for COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, will receive the 2022 Vilcek Prize for Excellence in Biotechnology.

Established in 2000 by Czechoslovakian immigrants Jan and Marica Vilcek, the nonprofit Vilcek Foundation was formed to promote the impact immigrants have on the United States and to build recognition of the sciences and the arts. The Vilcek Prize for Excellence has been awarded since 2019. It is awarded to immigrants to the United States who change the country and the world or to those who are dedicated advocates of immigrants. Dr. Karikó will officially receive the award, which comes with $100,000, in the spring of 2022.

Originally from Hungary, Dr. Karikó, a senior vice president at BioNTech, teamed up with colleague Drew Weissman, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Pennsylvania, to study mRNA vaccines over two decades ago. In 2005, they published research that showed how to specifically alter one of the building blocks of mRNA in order to increase its therapeutic potential. That, along with other mRNA discoveries from the two scientists, including how to effectively deliver mRNA using vaccination, led to a path that BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna used to create mRNA vaccines for the COVID-19 virus.

“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,” said Marica Vilcek. “In enabling people and communities to return to normal activities and to connect with one another in person, her work has had a direct positive impact on global society.”

Dr. Karikó earned a Ph.D. at the University of Szeged in Hungary. She conducted postdoctoral research at Temple University in Philadelphia and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.

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