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How 'science fiction' idea for treating cancer led to groundbreaking COVID vaccine

‘When we first got the idea, we didn’t dare talk about it,’ says BioNTech co-founder Ugur Sahin

Alyssa McMurtry   | 25.10.2021
How 'science fiction' idea for treating cancer led to groundbreaking COVID vaccine

​​​​​OVIEDO, Spain

The first COVID-19 vaccine approved in the West was made available faster than anyone dared imagine, but applications from its development may help humanity tackle cancer and other diseases, the doctors behind the vaccine told a weekend audience in Spain.

Speaking in the city of Oviedo, where they received a prestigious Princess of Asturias Award from the Spanish royal family, BioNTech co-founders Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci gave intriguing details of how their groundbreaking vaccine came about.

Its most direct roots trace back to the 1990s. That is when the two doctors, who both came from immigrant Turkish families, were working at an oncology ward in a German hospital but were “depressed” about how often cancer treatments end in failure.

They were compelled to find solutions, so at night, they dove back into the lab. Sahin and Tureci are also immunologists, focused on figuring out how to get immune cells to attack cancer cells.

“Our motivation from the very beginning was to combine our two worlds: the curiosity, understanding, and development of science and helping our patients,” Sahin explained.

Together they identified what makes tumor cells different from normal cells, which can be revealed by certain markers like antigens.

But training the immune system to kill cancer cells was not as simple as targeting one marker and giving the same vaccine to every patient. So they decided that individualized cancer treatments were the ideal approach.

Their idea was to take a biopsy from each patient, study its particular unique markers, and prepare personalized vaccines.

“That was a crazy idea, like science fiction in the 1990s,” said Sahin. “We didn’t dare talk about it. A lot of times, scientists want to stay credible so they don’t talk about their biggest ideas.”

It was far-fetched because it was extremely complicated. They needed to make sure that the technology was flexible, strong enough to annihilate cancer, and able to be rapidly manufactured. Where cancer is involved, timing can make all the difference in the world.


‘Everything’ comes together

They landed on mRNA technology as an ideal solution because it delivers all kinds of messages to cells, telling them to make proteins that trigger immune responses. After several years, they discovered how they could code one mRNA molecule to make hundreds of proteins.

The passion for their life-saving mission drew them together both professionally and personally. In 2002, the couple got married.

As their science grew more promising and they needed more money than universities could offer, they branched out into the business world.

“We became entrepreneurs out of desperation because we had experienced that if you want to turn science into survival and health, you have to navigate in a company framework,” explained Tureci.

In 2008, they co-founded BioNTech. And by 2019, they “had everything,” in the words of Sahin.

“We had extremely potent technology that could induce strong immune responses. After treating cancer patients, we saw tumors shrinking. We also reduced vaccine development time to less than six weeks,” he said.

Their company had just been listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange, its clinical trials were well underway, and its 2020 budget was all planned out.

But in the last weekend of January 2020, their lives were turned upside down.


COVID-19 pandemic strikes

“Ugur came to me and said, ‘The world as we know it is in danger, and people we love are at risk.’ As a loving wife, of course, I needed to see data,” recalled Tureci.

“He had come up with convincing mathematical simulations for the Wuhan disease and I believed him. We realized we couldn’t waste a single day,” said Tureci, referring to the Chinese city where the virus first emerged.

By the time Sahin presented his hypothesis to Tureci, he had spent sleepless nights coming up with several vaccine candidates.

They immediately got in touch with their team and investors, who were easily convinced that they had “a moral obligation to react” to the pandemic using their firm's technology.

“It was a challenge to pivot the company into infectious diseases, where we didn’t have much experience. But we had all the understanding of immunology to do it. That was our tailwind,” said Tureci.

They immediately began Project Lightspeed, pouring resources into a score of different vaccine candidates, and firing up all their workstreams at once – testing candidates, planning a clinical trial, lining up manufacturing, speaking to regulators, and acquiring new facilities.

“mRNA is a toolbox, it’s like Lego that you can mold to fit a purpose, but we didn’t know what type of immune response you’d need, so we wanted several horses in the race,” explained Tureci.

By March, BioNTech had finalized a partnership with US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer that would boost their manufacturing and clinical trial capacity.

After narrowing their candidate list, they ran a Phase 3 clinical trial with 40,000 participants.

“Before we got that data on a Sunday night in November, there was no way of knowing whether the strong immune response would work against the virus,” recalled Tureci.

But the results were resounding: “The data we got showed 95% efficacy across all ages.”

The rest is history. By the end of this year, they estimate that they will have shipped 3 billion doses of their life-saving vaccines worldwide.


Future treatments

Now that the breakthrough mRNA technology has been applied to help control one global health crisis, the couple is enthusiastic about its future.

BioNTech is now working on 17 clinical trials, with more in the pre-clinical stage.

The most advanced are studying the safety and efficacy of mRNA treatments for melanoma, colorectal cancer, and HPV-induced head and neck cancer. Those results are set to emerge within the next few years.

The success with the COVID-19 vaccine has also compelled the company to start developing vaccines against other infectious diseases like malaria, AIDS, and tuberculosis.

Meanwhile, their work with COVID-19 is still far from done. They are planning to set up vaccine manufacturing capabilities in developing countries and boost capacity to 4 billion vaccines per year.

They also said that should a vaccine-resistant variant emerge, the company is prepared to make necessary tweaks.

“With mRNA technology, we can react fast. We can just substitute in the new part. We’ve done this multiple times with our personalized cancer vaccines even though we have to do it in a race against the patient’s tumor,” said Tureci.

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