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  • Writer's picturePam King Sams

Katalin Karikó, mRNA Trailblazer, Awarded 2022 Vilcek Prize for Excellence in Biotechnology.

Katalin Karikó, PhD, part of the University of Pennsylvania scientific team whose innovative research laid the foundation for COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, will receive the 2022 Vilcek Prize for Excellence in Biotechnology. The prize, from The Vilcek Foundation, is awarded to immigrants to the United States who change the country and the world or to those who are dedicated advocates of immigrants. Karikó will officially receive the award, which comes with $100,000, in the spring of 2022.

Originally from Hungary, Karikó, an adjunct professor of Neurosurgery at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior vice president at BioNTech, teamed up with colleague Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, a professor of Infectious Diseases at Penn, to study mRNA vaccines over two decades ago. In 2005, they published research which 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.

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.

“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, Vilcek Foundation cofounder, vice chairman and secretary. “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.”

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