Breakthrough: Katalin Karikó and the mRNA Vaccine

Lerner/Twenty-First Century. Nov. 2023. 136p. Tr $38.65. ISBN 9798765607947.
Gr 7 Up–Two of the most common COVID-19 vaccines used in the United States, from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, use synthetic mRNA to produce an immune response to the virus. But what is synthetic mRNA, and who developed it? This work follows Katalin Karikó’s life and trajectory as a scientist. It was her unstinting belief in the importance of synthetic mRNA in disease prevention and her dedicated scientific work with research partner Drew Weissman that led to the development of an mRNA vaccine. Traditional vaccines use a live virus (weakened) or a dead virus to confer immunity. An mRNA vaccine uses synthetic mRNA to deliver instructions to cells to make a protein that instigates an immune response. Readers learn about Karikó’s childhood in rural Hungary, and her decision to leave and emigrate to the United States with her husband and young daughter to pursue her scientific studies. Women working in science face many challenges, and Karikó was no exception—especially since not many valued her area of research. But with the support of her family and a few colleagues who uplifted her work, notably Weissman, she persevered with her research over several decades. The book includes background information on gene therapy, vaccine development, coronaviruses, and other tangentially relevant scientific information. Complex scientific information is conveyed clearly, so that important ideas can be understood. Includes extensive source notes; a selected bibliography; and a list of books, videos, and websites for further information.
VERDICT This biography is timely as Karikó (along with Weissman) recently won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Accessible writing and thorough research make this a great science resource for middle and high school students. Recommended.

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