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Real-Life Chemistry Lessons: A Review of “Breaking Through: My Life in Science” by Katalin Karikó

In May 2013, Katalin Karikó arrived at her laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania to discover her personal items stacked in the hallway. “There were my binders, my posters, my boxes of test tubes,” she reminisces. A lab technician nearby was hastily discarding her belongings into a trash bin, prompting Karikó’s realization of the situation.

Despite her long tenure at the small laboratory, the scientist, then in her 50s, was abruptly expelled without prior notice due to her inability to secure “adequate funding per square footage.” In essence, she had not generated enough grants to justify her modest workspace.

Karikó, in a moment of defiance, muttered to the manager who had ousted her, “That lab is going to be a museum one day.” Little did she know that these words would foreshadow her remarkable journey as recounted in this captivating and poignant narrative of the challenges faced by a scientist now hailed as one of the world’s foremost biochemists—a visionary who played a pivotal role in developing vaccines that saved millions during the pandemic.

Hailing from a modest background in central Hungary, Karikó grew up in a one-room house heated by a single stove during harsh winters, devoid of running water. Her father, a former master butcher, resorted to laborer jobs after clashing with local Communist party officials.

Despite the hardships, as revealed in “Breaking Through,” her family’s bond remained strong, and education was encouraged by the state. Karikó, known for her strong work ethic, humbly states, “I don’t consider myself especially smart, but what I lacked in natural ability, I could make up for in effort.”

She pursued summer science programs, enrolled as a biology student at Szeged University, and eventually earned her PhD. At 22, she fell in love with Béla Francia, a trainee mechanic five years her junior. The couple tied the knot, and in 1982, Karikó welcomed their daughter, Susan. In 1984, with their entire savings of about £900 sewn inside Susan’s teddy bear to bypass Hungary’s currency restrictions, they embarked on a journey to the US.

Karikó’s fascination with messenger RNA (mRNA), the crucial material responsible for translating DNA into proteins, became her primary focus. Despite the challenges posed by the delicate and short-lived nature of mRNA, she persisted in advocating for its potential in medicine, earning her the nickname “the crazy mRNA lady.”

At Temple University, initial support from her superior, Robert Suhadolnik, waned as he attempted to have her deported for seeking a position at another institution. Subsequently, at the University of Pennsylvania, criticisms mounted regarding her insufficient grant acquisitions due to her unwavering dedication to mRNA research, leading to demotions, tenure denials, pay cuts, and ultimately, eviction from her workspace.

Fortuitously, Karikó’s pioneering work on mRNA aligned with the interests of other scientists, and she was recruited by the German company BioNTech to spearhead mRNA medicine research.

The culmination of her efforts altered the course of scientific history. Collaborating with BioNTech and Pfizer, Karikó played a pivotal role in developing a vaccine that significantly contributed to global efforts in combating the Covid-19 pandemic.

The profound impact of this achievement is poignantly depicted in “Breaking Through” when Karikó, receiving one of the inaugural Covid shots in the US, was hailed as a vaccine innovator amidst resounding cheers. Overwhelmed by the moment, she reflects, “My eyes grew misty.”

This memoir vividly portrays a life marked by triumphs, including her daughter Susan’s achievements as an Olympic gold medalist in rowing, amidst persistent challenges. The narrative subtly hints at the systemic issues in contemporary science, emphasizing the emphasis on quantity over quality in research publications and grant-seeking practices, potentially stifling groundbreaking innovations.

In a twist of fate, the book concludes before Karikó’s crowning achievement—the Nobel Prize in Physiology awarded in October 2023 alongside Drew Weissman—could be included. The implications of this belated recognition on those who impeded her progress remain speculative. However, one certainty prevails: while her former laboratory may not have transitioned into a museum yet, its transformation seems inevitable in the future.