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Meet the scientists behind the potential coronavirus vaccine

  • Nov 11, 2020
  • Author: QT-Online
  • Number of views: 19823
  • Science/TECH
DPA
Mainz 
Earlier this week, German firm BioNTech, together with its partner, US giant Pfizer, became the first pharmaceutical to develop a vaccine that is 90-per-cent effective against the coronavirus - an international breakthrough.
But who are the scientists behind the potential vaccine? BioNTech started small, twelve years ago in the German city of Mainz.
The company, founded by oncologist Ugur Sahin together with his wife Oezlem Tuereci, originally specialized in individualized immune therapy for cancer patients.
Sahin likens the rise of BioNTech, which now has 1,300 employees, to that of Tesla - though the modest, factual scientist seems worlds apart from the flashy demeanour of Tesla-founder Elon Musk.
The two BioNTech founders are specialists in human medicine. Sahin, 55, who heads up the firm, was born in Turkey and moved to Germany with his parents, where he studied medicine and maths in Cologne.
Tuereci, 53, who leads the medical division, was born in Germany and completed her studies in Homburg.
An expert in his field of medical science, Sahin can nevertheless explain complex processes in a simple way. He worked as a doctor in Cologne and Hamburg, before settling at the Saarland University Hospital in Western Germany, where between 1992 and 2000 he worked as a doctor and researcher in internal medicine before specializing in molecular medicine and immunology.
"I fondly remember our many personal conversations," said Michael Menger, Saarland University's dean of the medical faculty. "We are happy for him and his scientific and professional success." Sahin has always been passionate about fighting cancer and founded BioNTech in 2008 to search for a new cancer treatment.
"As a German company with roots in Mainz, we wanted to become the global biotech leader for individualized cancer medicine," he told dpa last year.
BioNTech's approach is rooted in viewing every tumour as unique. "Our goal is to develop individualized treatment for every patient's cancer," Sahin said.
The treatment is based on the genetic traits of each tumour. BioNTech uses a process called next-generation sequencing, which analyses human DNA to identify its billions of traits. In this way it can also identify even small changes in a cancer.
This research on sequencing tumors and DNA was key in developing the experimental coronavirus vaccine - together with expertise on the molecule mRNA, which contains the biological instructions for the formation of proteins in the body.
Sahin first learned about the coronavirus from a scientific publication in January, which described the outbreak in Wuhan, he told VRM media. He quickly realized the disease would spread. "We thought it was our duty to help out here too, because we have the basic conditions to develop vaccines," Sahin said.
That was the beginning of project "Lightspeed," which focused entirely on the essentials of developing a new vaccine.
"We used the word lightspeed to create this mindset in our team and everyone else. Light never stands still, it is always moving, so this project is conducted without delay or waiting time, at highest priority," Sahin said.
It seems like their hard work has paid off, although the vaccine still needs to be approved by regulators. BioNTech and Pfizer, with whom the Mainz company partnered to scale up production and distribution, plan to apply for emergency authorization with the United States' Food and Drug Authority (FDA) regulator next week.
Meanwhile, stock of BioNTech has skyrocketed, profiting investors as well as Sahin himself, who still holds a large stake in his company.