“Review of ‘Breaking Through: My Life in Science’ by Katalin Karikó – Valuable Insights on Chemistry from Real-Life Experiences”
In May of 2013, Katalin Karikó arrived at her laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania to find all of her belongings stacked in the hallway. She remembers seeing her binders, posters, and boxes of test tubes. A lab technician was also present, throwing her items into a trash bin. Karikó came to the realization that her belongings were being discarded.
Despite having been employed at the small laboratory for a significant amount of time, the scientist, who was in her fifties at the time, was unexpectedly dismissed due to the fact that she did not generate enough funding per unit of space. Essentially, she did not secure enough grants to justify the limited area she occupied.
“That lab is going to be a museum one day,” Karikó hissed at the manager who had ousted her. These were odd but prophetic words, as is made clear in this engrossing, touching tale of the tribulations of a scientist now recognised as one of the world’s greatest biochemists, a woman who helped create the vaccines that saved millions during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Karikó comes from a humble background in central Hungary, growing up in a single-roomed house that was heated in winter by a solitary stove and had no running water. Her father had to work as a labourer when he was dismissed from his job as a master butcher after falling foul of local Communist party officials.
Breaking Through uncovers the story of a difficult yet affectionate life. Despite the challenges, Karikó’s family was tightly bonded and the government promoted pursuing education. Karikó was a diligent worker, acknowledging that she may not have been exceptionally intelligent, but she compensated with hard work.
At the age of 22, she developed an interest in biology by taking summer science courses. She went on to become a biology student at Szeged University and eventually earned a PhD there. During this time, she also fell in love with Béla Francia, who was five years younger and training to be a mechanic. The two got married and in 1982, Karikó gave birth to their daughter, Susan. In 1984, with only £900 in savings, they made the decision to move to the US in order to escape Hungary’s currency restrictions. To safely transport their savings, they sewed the money into Susan’s teddy bear.
At this point in time, Karikó’s focus had shifted to messenger RNA (mRNA), the substance responsible for translating our genetic code into proteins, the building blocks of our bodies. However, working with mRNA was a challenge due to its fragility and short lifespan. Despite this, Karikó firmly believed in its potential for medicine and continuously advocated for its prioritization in research. Unfortunately, her peers often dismissed her as “the eccentric mRNA woman”.
Despite being a minor inconvenience, the epithets were a source of frustration for her. When she first started her work at Temple University in Philadelphia, her superior, Robert Suhadolnik, was initially supportive. However, he later attempted to have her deported for daring to apply for a position at a different university.
She eventually relocated to the University of Pennsylvania. Initially, everything went smoothly, but her fixation on mRNA caused the university to criticize her for not securing grants. As a result, she was demoted, denied tenure, had her salary reduced, and ultimately discovered her belongings discarded in a hallway.
Luckily for Karikó, her dedication to mRNA was now supported by multiple other researchers, and she was recruited by the German company BioNTech to start developing mRNA treatments.
The remaining events became a part of scientific history. When the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, BioNTech and Karikó recognized their advantageous position to combat it. With the support of Pfizer, they created a vaccine that played a crucial role in safeguarding the world from the severe effects of coronavirus.
The impact of this achievement on Karikó is described in a poignant scene in Breaking Through. She went back to Penn to receive one of the first Covid vaccinations in the US. Karikó was recognized in the audience and applauded as the inventor of the vaccine. She fondly remembers feeling emotional during this moment.
This memoir is a captivating account of a life marked by successes, such as her daughter Susan’s achievements as an Olympic gold medalist in rowing, despite facing constant challenges. The exact causes of the ongoing hindering of her research and academic reputation are not explicitly stated, but Breaking Through suggests that the current state of science is plagued by the pressure to publish a large volume of papers and secure grants for safe rather than innovative research. Quantity has taken precedence over quality as a driving force in one’s career.
Unfortunately, Breaking Through does not include Karikó’s ultimate achievement. She, along with Drew Weissman, received the Nobel Prize in physiology in October 2023, which was too late to be mentioned in her book. It can only be speculated what those who opposed her research must feel about her eventual triumph. One thing is certain: while her former lab may not currently serve as a museum, it will undoubtedly become one in the future.