The success of two scientists of Turkish descent was cause for celebration across the globe.

In 2018, Dr. Ugur Sahin took the stage at a conference in Berlin and made a bold prediction. Speaking to a roomful of infectious disease experts, he said his company might be able to use its so-called messenger RNA technology to rapidly develop a vaccine in the event of a global pandemic.

At the time, Sahin and his company, BioNTech were little known outside the small world of European biotechnology startups. BioNTech, which Sahin founded with his wife, Dr. Özlem Türeci, was mostly focused on cancer and tumor treatments. It had never brought a product to market.

Just last week, BioNTech and Pfizer announced that a vaccine for the coronavirus developed by Sahin and his team was more than 90 percent effective in preventing the disease among trial volunteers who had no evidence of having previously been infected. The stunning results vaulted BioNTech and Pfizer to the front of the race to find a cure for a disease that has killed more than 1.2 million people worldwide. BioNTech began work on the vaccine in January, scientists at the company, based in Mainz, Germany, canceled vacations and set to work on what they called Project Lightspeed.

After BioNTech had identified several promising vaccine candidates, Sahin concluded that the company would need help to rapidly test them, win approval from regulators and bring the best candidate to market. BioNTech and Pfizer had been working together on a flu vaccine since 2018, and in March, they agreed to collaborate on a coronavirus vaccine.

Sahin, 55, was born in Iskenderun, Turkey. When he was 4, his family moved to Cologne, Germany, where his parents worked at a Ford factory. He grew up wanting to be a doctor, and became a physician at the University of Cologne. In 1993, he earned a doctorate from the university for his work on immunotherapy in tumor cells.

Early in his career, he met Türeci. She had early hopes to become a nun and ultimately wound up studying medicine. Türeci, now 53 and the chief medical officer of BioNTech, was born in Germany, the daughter of a Turkish physician who immigrated from Istanbul. On the day they were married, Sahin and Türeci returned to the lab after the ceremony.

The couple were initially focused on research and teaching, including at the University of Zurich, where Sahin worked in the lab of Rolf Zinkernagel, who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in medicine.

Sahin and Türeci sold Ganymed for $1.4 billion in 2016. Last year, BioNTech sold shares to the public; in recent months, its market value has soared past $21 billion, making the couple among the richest in Germany.

In Germany, where immigration continues to be a fractious issue, the success of two scientists of Turkish descent was cause for celebration.

“With this couple, Germany has a shining example of successful integration,” wrote the site Focus.

BioNTech has been so busy developing a vaccine that the company has not finalized the financial details of its partnership agreement with Pfizer.

“Trust and personal relationship is so important in such business, because everything is going so fast,” Sahin said. “We still have a term sheet and not yet a final contract on many things.”

 

By: Olejniczak Sadik