WTF Fun Fact 13574 – Katalin Karikó

Katalin Karikó’s journey to Nobel glory is one of resilience and steadfast dedication. A biochemist, Karikó had always been keen on exploring the therapeutic potentials of mRNA.

She obtained her PhD from Hungary’s esteemed Szeged University in 1982 and secured a tenure-track professor position at the University of Pennsylvania in 1989. But her research into RNA faced numerous challenges.

Funding eluded her, and her experiments saw little success. The 1990s brought more trials. This included a cancer diagnosis, the choice to abandon her research or accept a demotion, and a pay cut. She chose the latter, demonstrating her unyielding commitment to mRNA’s potential.

Katalin Karikó”s Partnership with Weissman

1997 marked a turning point. Immunologist Drew Weissman joined the University of Pennsylvania and partnered with Karikó. His interest lay in developing an HIV vaccine. The goal was to prime immune responses with dendritic cells, known for training T cells against foreign antigens. Their collaboration led to the discovery that synthetic, unmodified mRNA provoked dendritic cells into activating inflammatory responses.

The duo’s realization that mammalian cell RNA was frequently chemically modified (while bacterial DNA and RNA often weren’t) changed the course of their research. Another significant insight was that toll-like receptors (TLRs) specifically detected DNA and RNA modifications to trigger inflammation. Their 2005 research paper unveiled that synthetic RNA activated several TLRs, causing inflammatory responses. But adding specific modifications to the synthetic mRNA’s bases curtailed these responses and even enhanced protein production.

mRNA Shaping Modern Vaccine Production

This groundbreaking work ushered in the era of mRNA therapeutics. It catalyzed the inception of Moderna and BioNTech, the companies that later formulated the lifesaving mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. A testament to Karikó and Weissman’s work is the modified base m1 Ψ, now integral to Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine production.

Recognition Overlooked Despite the promise and subsequent success of her research, Karikó’s contributions remained largely overshadowed. The scientific community’s initial apathy was evident: post their 2005 revelation, Karikó revealed a lack of interest from peers and major biopharma companies. By 2013, this disregard culminated in her departure from the University of Pennsylvania. Yet, adversity wasn’t new to her. Rather than be deterred, she associated with BioNTech, ascending from hands-on benchwork to senior vice presidency. In 2021, she returned to academia, serving at Szeged University and as adjunct faculty at UPenn. Meanwhile, Weissman continued at UPenn, helming the Penn Institute for RNA Innovations.

Katalin Karikó and Nobel Acclaim

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine awarded to Karikó and Weissman celebrates their persistent, pioneering work on mRNA technology. This research directly paved the way for the creation of the frontrunner COVID-19 vaccines. It’s a fitting tribute to Karikó, who faced professional setbacks and health challenges, yet never deviated from her belief in mRNA’s potential. For her, the Nobel isn’t just an award—it’s validation of decades of unwavering commitment.

The story of Katalin Karikó story serves as an inspiring lesson on perseverance. Her Nobel win, alongside Drew Weissman, underscores the importance of dedication to scientific exploration, even in the face of skepticism and adversity. Their work expanded our understanding of mRNA and provided the foundation for life-saving vaccines during a global pandemic.

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Source: “After being demoted and forced to retire, mRNA researcher wins Nobel” — Ars Technica

WTF Fun Fact 13377 – Tu Youyou and the Nobel Prize

Tu Youyou is a Chinese scientist and pharmaceutical chemist whose groundbreaking work in the discovery of artemisinin revolutionized malaria treatment. Her contributions have had a significant impact on global health, saving countless lives. Interestingly, she sought (and found) the award-winning compound in the corpus of Ancient Chinese Medicine.

According to the Nobel Prize website (cited below): “She is the first mainland Chinese scientist to have received a Nobel Prize in a scientific category, and she did so without a doctorate, a medical degree, or training abroad.”

The training of Tu Youyou

Born in Ningbo, Zhejiang, China, Tu’s interest in medicine may have started after she had to miss two years of school after a bout of tuberculosis.

Tu’s interests eventually landed her at Beijing Medical College. There, she studied pharmacology – a modern science – but with a traditional backbone. At college, she learned how to classify medicinal plants and extract their active ingredients in order to learn more about their chemical structure. She would do this with many of the thousands of plants in the ancient Chinese medical handbooks.

Tu Youyou went to work at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in 1955, after graduation.

She was first asked by the Chinese government to help find a treatment for malaria during the Vietnam War. Vietnamese soldiers were dying in droves because the disease had become resistant to the standard treatment – chloroquine. But this posed a global health threat. She joined the battle against the disease after Chairman Mao Zedong launched a project called Project 523 in 1967.

Discovering a new malaria treatment

In 1969, Tu became the head of Project 523 and traveled to Hainan Island in southern China. She had to leave her two young children behind for three years to study the disease in its deadly habitat.

After she returned, the scientific work began.

In Beijing, Tu and her team were facing a difficult situation. Over 240,000 compounds had already been tested for their potential use in anti-malarial drugs, but none worked. That’s when they returned to the ancient Chinese medical text.

A reference to sweet wormwood (known as Artemisia annua) would turn out to be the key. She had identified it for its ability to help with “intermittent fevers” – a key symptom of malaria. It had been used in China around 400 AD.

Turning nature into medicine

Through meticulous experimentation, Tu Youyou and her team successfully isolated a compound from Artemisia annua that demonstrated potent anti-malarial properties. She named this compound artemisinin. It was very successful in killing malaria in laboratory tests.

After lab tests came clinical trials, which were also successful. The great thing about artemisinin was that it helped kill malaria while minimizing the development of resistance to the medication. Artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs), which combine artemisinin derivatives with other anti-malarial drugs, have since become the gold standard in malaria treatment worldwide.

Tu Youyou’s groundbreaking discoveries earned her numerous accolades and recognition. In 2015, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, becoming the first Chinese scientist to receive this prestigious honor. Her contributions have had a profound impact on global health, particularly in regions heavily burdened by malaria.

Tu Youyou’s impact on the future

Artemisinin and its derivatives have transformed malaria treatment and played a crucial role in reducing the mortality rate of this deadly disease. Their widespread use has significantly contributed to the decline in malaria-related deaths worldwide. Tu Youyou’s work continues to inspire scientists, researchers, and healthcare professionals in the ongoing fight against malaria.

Despite the remarkable success of artemisinin-based therapies, challenges remain in the battle against malaria. The emergence of drug resistance, particularly in Southeast Asia, underscores the need for ongoing research and innovative approaches to combat this persistent global health issue. Scientists continue to study artemisinin and explore novel drug combinations to stay ahead of the evolving malaria parasite.

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Source: Tu Youyou – The Nobel Prize website

WTF Fun Fact 13160 – The Niels Bohr Beer Supply

After winning the Nobel Prize, Danish physicist Niels Bohr received a lifetime supply of kegs, bottles, and crates of beer from Carlsberg Brewery from 1932 until his death in 1962.

Niels Bohr Beer Supply (and the myth of the pipes)

You may have actually heard something about Niels Bohr’s beer prize. But that’s likely because you’ve heard an oft-repeated myth that the beer company had the beer piped right into his house.

For some reason, enough of us don’t know enough about pipes to realize that such a story would be both gross and impossible. But it’s ok – most of us aren’t plumbers.

So, first, let’s do away with the myth that Bohr had some magic beer sink or tap right inside his home. That would be cool, but it’s not true.

Instead, the physicist (who worked on the Manhattan Project) was gifted the beer in the form of bottles and kegs. We’re guessing he was also treated to a pint wherever he went. People were pretty excited about his Nobel Prize. And at the time they were both horrified and grateful for the Manhattan Project’s development of the atomic bomb.

Beer prize

Dr. Christian Joas, the director of the Niels Bohr Archives confirmed that “…it is true that Niels Bohr received a life annuity from Carlsberg Brewery in the form of kegs, bottles and crates of beer, which were delivered to him from 1932 until his death in 1962.”

The blog Beerena (cited below) has a great account of the myth and the real story.

They note that “the origin of the story of the beer pipeline at Bohr’s house” is likely due in part to chemistry professor and YouTuber Martyn Poliakoff (of the Periodic Videos channel).

“In 2011, he published a video in which he discusses the origin of the element bohrium, named after Niels Bohr, and mentions the urban legend of beer. When asked where he got it from, he replied that he believed he had read it in Richard Rhodes ’book Creating an Atomic Bomb.”

Trust us, there’s no such story in the book. But the book is long and full of detail, so we can see why he might assume the anecdote originated there. Sadly, that leaves us without the origin of the story. But it hardly matters – these types of things often spiral out of control. It’s interesting enough that Bohr had a beer connection to Carlsberg, we don’t really need to believe he had an underground beer pipe installed in his home.  WTF fun facts

Source: “The Myth of Niels Bohr’s Beer Pipeline” — Beerena