Scientist Behind Coronavirus Vaccine Says Next Target Is Cancer

Ozlem Tureci, co-founder of the German company BioNTech with her husband, was working on a way to harness the body’s immune system to fight tumors when they learned last year about an unknown virus infecting people in China.

Over breakfast, the couple decided to apply the technology they had been researching for two decades to the new threat, calling the effort “Project Lightspeed.”

Within 11 months, Britain had authorized the use of the mRNA vaccine that BioNTech developed with the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, followed a week later by the United States. Tens of millions of people around the world have received the vaccine since December.

“It pays to make bold decisions and trust that if you have an extraordinary team, you will be able to solve any problems and obstacles that come your way in real time,” Tureci told The Associated Press in an interview.

Among the biggest challenges for the Mainz-based small business that had not yet brought a product to market was how to conduct large-scale clinical trials in different regions and how to scale up the manufacturing process to meet global demand.

Together with Pfizer, the company enlisted the help of Fosun Pharma in China “to bring in assets, capabilities and geographic presence, which we did not have,” Tureci said.

Among the lessons that she and her husband, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin, learned along with their colleagues, was “the importance of international cooperation and collaboration.”

Tureci, who was born in Germany to Turkish immigrants, said the company, which has staff from 60 countries, reached out to medical oversight bodies early on to make sure the new type of vaccine passed rigorous scrutiny from regulators. .

“The process for getting a drug or vaccine approved is one where you ask a lot of questions, a lot of experts are involved, and there is an external peer review of all the scientific data and discourse,” he said.

Amid a scare in Europe this week over the coronavirus vaccine made by British-Swedish rival AstraZeneca, Tureci dismissed the idea that those competing to develop a vaccine would do their best.

Tureci and his colleagues have received the BioNTech vaccine themselves, he told the AP. “Yes, we have been vaccinated,” he said.

As BioNTech’s profile has grown during the pandemic, so has its value, providing funds that the company can use to pursue its original goal of developing a new cancer tool.

“We have several different mRNA-based cancer vaccines,” said Tureci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer.

When asked when such a therapy might be available, Tureci said that “that is very difficult to predict in innovative development. But we hope that in just a couple of years, we will also have our (cancer) vaccines in a place where we can offer them to people. “

For now, Tureci and Sahin are trying to ensure that the vaccines that governments ordered are delivered and that the vaccines respond effectively to any new mutation in the virus.

On Friday, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier presented the wife and husband with one of the country’s highest decorations, the Order of Merit, during a ceremony attended by Chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained scientist.

“It started with a drug to treat cancer in one individual,” Steinmeier told the couple. “And today we have a vaccine for all humanity.”

Tureci said before the ceremony that receiving the award was “indeed an honor.”

But he insisted that developing the vaccine was the job of many.

“This is the effort of many: our team at BioNTech, all the partners that participated, also governments, regulatory authorities, who worked together with a sense of urgency,” said Tureci. “In our view, this is a recognition of this effort and also a celebration of science.”


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