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Scientist behind COVID-19 vaccine says her next target is cancer

She also assures that no corners were cut in the race to develop a Coronavirus vaccine.

Scientist behind COVID-19 vaccine says her next target is cancer
Cover Image Source: Özlem Türeci, founder of the Mainz corona vaccine developer BioNtech, attends the Axel Springer Awards during a virtual award show on March 18, 2021, in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Bernd von Jutrczenka - Pool/Getty Images)

Ozlem Tureci, one half of the husband-and-wife team that won the race to deliver the first widely used Coronavirus vaccine, recently revealed that the technology behind the shot could soon be used to fight cancer too. According to ABC News, Tureci — the co-founder and chief medical officer of BioNTech — was working with her husband, Dr. Ugur Sahin, on a way to harness the body's immune system to tackle tumors when they learned about an unknown virus infecting people in China. A January 2020 article about the novel Coronavirus, reportedly left the couple convinced that it would explode into a full-blown pandemic.


Almost immediately, Tureci and Sahin decided to apply the technology they'd been researching for two decades to the virus. "There are not too many companies on the planet which have the capacity and the competence to do it so fast as we can do it," Dr. Sahin said in an interview last year, reports The New York Times. "So it felt not like an opportunity, but a duty to do it, because I realized we could be among the first coming up with a vaccine." Their efforts quickly bore fruit as, within 11 months, Britain had authorized the use of the mRNA vaccine BioNTech developed with U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. The US followed a week later.


Since December, tens of millions of people across the world have received the shot. "It pays off to make bold decisions and to trust that if you have an extraordinary team, you will be able to solve any problem and obstacle which comes your way in real-time," Tureci said in a recent interview. One of the biggest challenges the small, Mainz-based company faced along the way was figuring out how to conduct large-scale clinical trials across different regions and how to scale up the manufacturing process to meet global demand.


BioNTech tackled these issues by joining hands with Pfizer and Fosun Pharma in China "to get assets, capabilities and geographical footprint on board, which we did not have," Tureci revealed. Along the way, the company learned "how important cooperation and collaboration is internationally." Tureci — who was born in Germany to Turkish immigrants — added that BioNTech worked alongside medical oversight bodies from the get-go to ensure that the new vaccine would pass the rigorous scrutiny of regulators. "The process of getting a medicine or a vaccine approved is one where many questions are asked, many experts are involved and there is external peer review of all the data and scientific discourse," she said.


Tureci also dismissed widespread concerns that vaccine developers may have cut corners in their race to produce the shots. "There is a very rigid process in place and the process does not stop after a vaccine has been approved," she said. "It is, in fact, continuing now all around the world, where regulators have used reporting systems to screen and to assess any observations made with our or other vaccines." In fact, Tureci and her colleagues have all received the BioNTech vaccine themselves.


The BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine uses messenger RNA — or mRNA — to carry instructions into the human body for making proteins that prime it to attack a specific virus. The same principle can reportedly be applied to get the immune system to attack tumors. "We have several different cancer vaccines based on mRNA," said Tureci. As for when such a treatment option might be available to the public, she said that it's "very difficult to predict in innovative development. But we expect that within only a couple of years, we will also have our vaccines (against) cancer at a place where we can offer them to people."


Tureci and Sahin are currently focused on ensuring that the vaccines ordered by different governments are delivered as soon as possible and that the shots respond effectively to any new mutation in the virus. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier last week awarded one of the country's highest decorations, the Order of Merit, to the couple in a ceremony attended by Chancellor Angela Merkel. "You began with a drug to treat cancer in a single individual," Steinmeier told Tureci and Sahin at the event. "And today we have a vaccine for all of humanity."


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