UCC to honour Dr Katalin Karikó with doctorate for mRNA research

24 Apr 2023

Image: © James Thew/Stock.adobe.com

Karikó, who has dedicated her career to mRNA research that has saved the lives of millions, will meet UCC students and researchers on 26 April.

University College Cork (UCC) has decided to award an honorary doctorate to Hungarian-born scientist Dr Katalin Karikó for her pioneering work in mRNA research that led to the development of life-saving vaccines against Covid-19.

Karikó will be presented the award on Wednesday (26 April) at a special ceremony in UCC which coincides with World Immunisation Week. She will meet UCC medicine and health students and researchers ahead of the ceremony.

A professor at the University of Szeged and an adjunct professor at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Karikó has dedicated her life to studying RNA-mediated mechanisms with the ultimate goal of developing in vitro-transcribed mRNA, or messenger RNA, for protein therapy.

Findings from this study were crucial in developing the BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against Covid-19 which saved millions of lives.

Karikó’s efforts to research mRNA was marked by hurdles, including a lack of grants and institutional support for her ideas. Eventually, she discovered how to overcome the potentially lethal inflammatory response caused by synthetic mRNA that had precluded its use in humans.

“The personal and professional perseverance of Dr Karikó to develop the science that protected our world is deeply inspiring,” said UCC president Prof John O’Halloran. “With unrelenting determination and courage, Dr Karikó has made an enormous contribution to the fight against viral diseases and turned the tide of the pandemic.”

UCC has a strong history of RNA research, having made a discovery in 2021 with a Swiss team that highlighted a potential drug target against the Covid virus. Separately, the work of Prof Caitriona O’Driscoll and Dr Piotr Kowalski, both UCC researchers, is focused on developing innovative solutions to deliver RNA-based therapeutics.

This latest award honours Karikó’s discovery of the revolutionary mRNA technique and her outstanding contributions to science despite facing grant rejections and funding uncertainty.

Dr Karikó said she is “delighted to accept this prestigious recognition” from UCC and she looks forward to visiting the university campus and meeting the student and lecturers during her first visit to Ireland.

“Dr Karikó is an inspirational role model for everyone involved in basic research and its translation into innovative solutions for global problems. Her story is one of persistence and belief,” said Prof John Cryan, vice-president of research and innovation at UCC.

“As we embark on our Future Medicines initiative here in UCC, we are deeply motivated by her research and the power of RNA-based medicines which over promise for other conditions beyond viral infections including cancers and rare diseases that were previously undruggable. She has enabled future medicines to arrive today.”

The Future Medicines initiative was launched last year to recruit leading scientists, engineers and clinician investigators at UCC and affiliated hospitals to deliver next-generation medicines and medical technologies.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic