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Just Imagine…Overcoming Rejection

Katalin Karikó

Katalin Karikó grew up in Hungary. Her passion for service led to her earning a PhD from the University of Szeged. When her research funding in Hungary disappeared, she and her family came to America. Karikó was able to get a research appointment at Temple University.

Karikó then moved on to the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interest was the use of messenger RNA (mRNA) to fight disease. mRNA is used to give cells the ability to make proteins. At that time, her research was considered to be unproven and too risky. Consequently, Karikó was not able to get research grants and scientific journals rejected her work since the academic peer review system in place often tends to be adverse to challenges to current thinking.

Karikó was demoted in her position at the University of Pennsylvania. At the same time, she was diagnosed with cancer. Despite these challenges, she never gave up on her research. After several years of limited success, Karikó and a colleague discovered a way for a synthetic version of RNA to bypass the body’s immune system. This was a major breakthrough.

The breakthrough caught the attention of a cell biologist who helped start up a company called Moderna and another company BioNTech, a future partner of Pfizer. Karikó’s work became the basis of the two leading COVID-19 vaccines.

In addition, Karikó’s research is now being explored as a potential for vaccines for HIV, malaria, and other emerging versions of influenza. Her work has already shown promises in increasing effectiveness of therapeutic cancer vaccines.

Karikó’s reward for her groundbreaking achievement is a sense of redemption. She also treated herself to her favorite candy – a bag of Goobers.

Pioneers of progress rarely have it easy. Their work is often doubted. This is especially true when pioneers don’t have the same “pedigree” of those who have an influence on what is deemed to be worthy of support. Pioneers have a faith in themselves that few others have. They truly believe in their ideas and refuse to give up.

Just imagine where the world would be if Katalin Karikó had given up on herself.  Why are we so reluctant to accept the possibility of new approaches? How might we overcome the “rejection culture” that can hold back the acceptance of vitally needed new ideas? Just imagine what it will take to break the stranglehold that some parts of the establishment have on what ideas are worth exploring.

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“Rejection – and the fear of rejection – is the biggest impediment we face to choosing ourselves.”- James Altucher (Hedge-fund manager, author, entrepreneur and founder of over 20 companies)

This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.