Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, the husband and wife team who founded German pharma firm BioNTech, were studying a potential vaccine for tumors using a novel technology known as messenger RNA (mRNA) when they learned about a new type of coronavirus spreading in China in January 2020.
The couple decided to investigate the possibility of making a vaccine for that mysterious and highly contagious virus using mRNA. Within weeks, BioNTech scientists developed an experimental vaccine in partnership with American pharma giant Pfizer. And 10 months later, the vaccine cleared clinical trials and regulatory hurdles and began going into tens of millions of people’s arms around the world.
For Şahin and Türeci, it’s time to pick up the cancer research where it’s left.
“We have several different cancer vaccines based on mRNA,” Türeci told The Associated Press in an interview on Friday. Though it’s too early to predict when such a vaccine will be available, the prospect is promising. “It’s very difficult to predict in innovative development. But we expect that within only a couple of years,” Türeci added.
The biotech community has been studying mRNA for two decades. The medical platform works by carrying instructions for making antigen proteins found on the surface of a virus into body cells. The antigen will then be copied and produced in more cells to prime the immune system against that specific virus.
The same principle can be applied in tackling other immune system-related illnesses, such as influenza, malaria and cancer.
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For cancer, mRNA is being investigated as a way to deliver to cells the protein codes in a specific tumor, which could be personalized to match an individual’s cancer mutations. The cells then produce those proteins and train the immune system to guard off the cancer.
Boston-based Moderna, which developed an mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine in a similar record time, is also investigating the tech’s potential in treating and preventing other diseases. The firm has 24 mRNA-based vaccines or therapies in the works, including three vaccine projects announced in January: one for HIV, one for seasonal flu, and the third Nipah virus, which causes encephalitis and has a fatality rate of up to 75 percent.
On Friday, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier awarded Şahin and Türeci with the Order of Merit, one of the country’s highest honors, during a ceremony attended by Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The couple stressed that success with BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine is a team effort. “It’s about the effort of many: our team at BioNTech, all the partners who were involved, also governments, regulatory authorities, which worked together with a sense of urgency,” Türeci said. “The way we see it, this is an acknowledgement of this effort and also a celebration of science.”