Ozlem Tureci, scientist behind Pfizer’s COVID vaccine, says next target is cancer

Ozlem Tureci, scientist behind Pfizer's COVID vaccine, says next target is cancer

The scientist who won the race to deliver the first widely used coronavirus vaccine says people can rest assured the vaccines are safe and that the technology behind it will soon be used to fight another global scourge: cancer Ozlem Tureci, who co-founded 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 that an unknown virus was infecting people in China.
Over breakfast, the couple decided to apply the technology they had researched for two decades to the new threat, dubbing the effort “Project Lightspeed.” Within 11 months, Britain had cleared the vaccine for use. to mRNA BioNTech developed with the American 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 have confidence that if you have an amazing team, you will be able to resolve any issues and obstacles that come your way in real time,” Tureci told the Associated Press in an interview.

Among the biggest challenges for the small Mainz-based company that had yet to bring 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 the demand. global demand.

Along with Pfizer, the company tapped Fosun Pharma in China “to get assets, capabilities and a geographic footprint on board, which we didn’t have,” said Tureci.

Among the lessons she and her husband, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin, learned 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, contacted medical oversight bodies early on, to ensure the new type of vaccine passed. strict control of regulators.

“The drug or vaccine approval process is one where many questions are asked, many experts are involved and there is external peer review of all the data and scientific discourse,” said Amid fear in Europe this week over the coronavirus vaccine from Anglo-Swedish rival AstraZeneca, Tureci dismissed the idea that all corners were cut by those running to develop a vaccine.

“There’s a very rigid process in place and the process doesn’t stop after a vaccine is approved,” she said. “In fact, this is now continuing all over the world, where regulators have used reporting systems to track and assess any observations made with our vaccines or others. ”

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

As BioNTech’s profile grew during the pandemic, its value also increased, providing funds the company can use to further its original goal of developing a new tool against cancer.

Vaccines made by BioNTech-Pfizer and its US rival Moderna use messenger RNA, or mRNA, to deliver instructions to the human body to make proteins that trigger it to attack a specific virus. The same principle can be applied to get the immune system to attack tumors.

“We have several different mRNA-based cancer vaccines,” said Tureci, who is the chief medical officer of BioNTech.

Asked when such therapy might be available, Tureci said, “It’s very difficult to predict in innovative development. But we anticipate that within just a few years we will also have our (anti) cancer vaccines somewhere where we can offer them. to people. ”

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

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier awarded the wife and husband one of the country’s highest decorations, the Order of Merit, on Friday at a ceremony attended by Chancellor Angela Merkel, a scientist from training itself.

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

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

But she insisted that developing the vaccine was the work of many.

“This is the effort of many: our team at BioNTech, all partners involved, as well as governments, regulators, who have worked together with a sense of urgency,” said Tureci. “The way we see it is an acknowledgment of this effort and also a celebration of science. ”

Copyright © 2021 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


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