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MANILA, Philippines – After biochemists Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine on Monday, October 2, University of Pennsylvania (Penn) was quick to acknowledge the pair as “Penn’s historic mRNA vaccine research team.”
The Nobel prize committee awarded Karikó and Weissman for their work on “nucleoside base modifications” that helped in the creation of the COVID-19 vaccine.
But in an interview with the Nobel prize committee shortly after the announcement, Karikó recalled she was “kicked out from Penn,” and was “forced to retire.”
In an article posted by Penn on X (formerly Twitter) on Monday, October 2, the university recognized Karikó and Weissman as the “28th and 29th Nobel laureates affiliated with Penn.” It added that the pair joins nine previous Nobel laureates in Medicine with ties to the university. But at the bottom of the post, context was added by readers claiming that Penn’s wording was “misleading,” stating that the university missed to mention they demoted Karikó.
According to an October 2023 article by Forbes, Karikó started at Penn in 1989 as an adjunct professor and researcher. Karikó worked on mRNA therapies at the university throughout the 1990s, but struggled to win grants as excitement around mRNA began to fade. In 1995, Penn gave her an ultimatum to either leave or to continue working on mRNA but get demoted from her full-time professor track.
“It was particularly horrible as that same week, I had just been diagnosed with cancer,” Karikó said in an interview with Wired.
“I was facing two operations, and my husband, who had gone back to Hungary to pick up his green card, had got stranded there because of some visa issue, meaning he couldn’t come back for six months. I was really struggling…,” she added.
Karikó accepted the demotion and began collaborating with Weissman, a professor of medicine at Penn, in 1997.
Siren Biotechnology founder Nicole Paulk insisted on social media that Penn “played no role” in the pair’s win. “You should feel immense shame, not pride, today,” Paulk said, replying to a congratulatory post by the university.
And yet you shunned her and put roadblocks in the way of her and her research when she was at Penn. You should feel immense shame, not pride, today. You played no role in this. This win is hers and Drew's.— Dr. Nicole Paulk (@Nicole_Paulk) October 2, 2023
New England Complex Systems Institute Chief of COVID-19 Task Force and former Harvard Medical School researcher Eric Feigl-Ding also urged Penn to apologize to Karikó, and admired the Nobel laureate for persisting in her research work despite her demotion.
📍UPENN needs to apologize to #NobelPrize2023 winner Dr. Kariko: "UPenn told me that they’d had a meeting and concluded that I was not of faculty quality. When I told them I was leaving, they laughed at me and said, ‘BioNTech doesn’t even have a website.’”@Penn — apologize! pic.twitter.com/LgoTKgUi6j— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) October 2, 2023
“Kati lit the match and we spent the rest of those 20-plus years working together, figuring it out,” Weissman said in a press conference at Penn.
“We would sit together in 1997 and afterwards and talk about all the things that we thought RNA could do, all of the vaccines and therapeutics and gene therapies….That’s why we never gave up. We just kept persevering and kept working at it,” he said.
In 2013, Penn refused to reinstate Karikó to the full-time professor track she had been demoted from in 1995. “They told me that they’d had a meeting and concluded that I was not of faculty quality,” she told Wired.
Karikó accepted an offer to become senior vice president at German biotechnology company BioNTech in the same year. She has been leading the company’s COVID-19 vaccine development since.
“About 10 years ago, I was here in October because I was kicked out, from Penn, was forced to retire,” Karikó told Nobel after the announcement of her award.
“Then my husband supported me and said that, you know, when [he] finally visited in Germany and found that maybe BioNTech is the right place. Then he said ‘Just try it and I will make sure that you don’t regret.'”
Karikó is currently an adjunct professor of neurosurgery in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, while Weissman is the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. Both joined a celebration in the university after the announcement by the Nobel prize committee.
The Nobel Prize in Medicine is annually awarded to persons who have made “the most important discovery” within the field. There are currently 227 Nobel laureates in Medicine, according to its official website. – Rappler.com