An end to the Covid-19 nightmare of 2020 may be in sight, thanks to the passion and persistence of a Turkish-born migrant, who has championed an innovative approach to vaccine development, which he believes could transform the future of medicine.
Uğur Şahin is the 55-year-old doctor and business entrepreneur behind the recently approved Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. He was born in İskenderun, an industrial town close to the Syrian border, but moved to Cologne in Germany when 4 after his father found work in a Ford factory. He grew up loving Jurgen Klopp’s Mainz soccer team, but with a fascination for science.
Şahin met his wife, Özlem Türeci, of similar Turkish origin, while they were both trainee doctors specialising in blood cancers in the early 1990s. They combined their hospital day jobs, with evenings in their research lab (even on their wedding day!), filing many patents that have become key to their recent breakthrough.
In 2001 Şahin and Türeci founded Ganymed, focused on anti-cancer drugs, developing a revolutionary approach which creates a synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA) to prompt the body to fight tumours in a much more personalised way. In 2016, they sold the business for $1.4bn.
In parallel, the couple formed BioNTech (the NT capitals referring to Novel Technologies) in 2008, to accelerate their development of their mRNA approach. Sahin is the Mainz-based company’s CEO, his wife the chief medical officer. Interviewed by Deutsche Welle, Tureci said that Şahin is the dreamer, appreciating “the beauty of mathematics, science and biology”, with the belief in an approach which everyone else doubted, while she is the pragmatist.
Now, BioNTech is leading the fightback against a pandemic that has disrupted the entire world, socially and economically, and claimed 1.6 million lives.
Şahin kicked off his Project Lightspeed in January this year as soon as he became aware of alarming infection rates of a pneumonia-like disease in China’s Hubei province, two months before WHO declared a pandemic. He persuaded his investors that he should immediately refocus all resources on finding a Covid-19 vaccine.
As a small business they were able to move faster than most pharma giants, having a single-minded focus, making faster decisions, adding risks and avoiding politics, and developed over 20 possible Covid-19 vaccines by March.
Realising that they would need to scale rapidly, requiring significant funding and global partners, he turned to Wiley’s “Business Plans for Dummies” as a crash course in entrepreneurship. He also set about attracting the best talent and an ecosystem of ideas – creating a biotech cluster, and TRON, a non-profit for oncology research.
There were still few supporters for the mRNA platform, but Sahin remained convinced he had an effective response to Covid-19, and could have it ready before the year end.
BioNTech’s ability to create a completely new and approved vaccine that is 95% effective in combating Covid-19 in less that 12 months is phenomenal. Normally, a vaccine can take 5-10 years to develop (the previous fastest was 4 years for the mumps vaccine in the 1960s), and around 6 out of 10 vaccines which actually make it to trial stage are never approved.
Other Covid-19 vaccines are following rapidly, largely due to the international cooperation and huge investment by governments. Moderna has adopted a similar approach to BioNTech, while Oxford/AstraZeneca’s approach is more conventionally derived from the common cold virus, at lower costs (€3 per shot, compared to BioNTech’s €17) and at normal temperatures, offering particular hope to developing countries.
Şahin believes that the technology BioNTech has developed could lead to a medical revolution, particularly in developing more personalised and effective cancer treatments.
The key advantage of mRNA is its ability to produce multiple versions of the molecule within days, rather than having to create cultures of live vaccines in a Petri dish. The chemical synthesis can also be adapted quickly to respond even faster to future viruses, as well as for cancers and other rare diseases.
Şahin’s ability to combine medical, education and business acumen has been key to BioNTech’s success. The clinical trials database is being shared openly with other companies to support future research, while Pfizer gave BioNTech the ability to rapidly accelerate clinical trials and scale production of its BNT162b2 vaccine.
BioNTech’s own market value has grown rapidly too, by 230% since March, to around $27 billion by the end of 2020, with Şahin himself estimated to be now worth $5.6bn.
At a cancer conference in Berlin last year Şahin said that science and business need to intersect much better – saying that “exploit” is just as important as “explore” – both in terms of commercialising ideas faster, to reach more people and save lives, and in creating strategic platforms for ongoing innovation.