The same scientist who delivered the first COVID-19 vaccines says that the science behind the vaccine may also be used to fight cancer.
Before finding a way to help defeat the coronavirus, Ozlem Tureci, co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of the German-based pharmaceutical company BioNTech, worked alongside her husband to figure how to teach the immune system to attack tumors.
The couple discussed the new global threat, a novel coronavirus, over breakfast one morning and decided that their two-decade-long research could be applied to the growing threat of COVID-19. They called the project “Project Lightspeed.”
BioNTech eventually developed a successful coronavirus vaccine with Pfizer, a U.S. pharmaceutical company. Eleven months later, the U.K. authorized using the mRNA vaccine, and a week after that, the U.S. did the same. Since December, millions of people all over the globe have received BioNTech and Pfizer’s vaccine.
Tureci said, “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.”
One of the obstacles Tureci and her husband faced was their small biotech company’s inability to oversee mass-scale global clinical trials. Their manufacturing capacity was also too short to meet the global demand. So BioNTech worked with Pfizer and China’s Fosun Pharma to “get assets, capabilities, and geographical footprint on board, which we did not have,” Tureci acknowledged.
Tureci, along with her husband and chief executive of BioNTech, Ugur Sahin, learned that international cooperation and collaboration were vital for finding a vaccine candidate.
BioNTech has employees from 60 countries, and Tureci had contact with regulators from the beginning to make sure the vaccine would be well received.
“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,” Tureci said.
Tureci also said there were no corners cut to rush the vaccine.
“There is a very rigid process in place, and the process does not stop after a vaccine has been approved. It is, in fact, continuing now all around the world, where regulators have used reporting systems to screen and to access any observations made with our or other vaccines.”
Tureci also pointed out that she and her colleagues have all been vaccinated with the BioNTech vaccine.
BioNTech’s prominence has grown in the past year. Its value has, too, infusing the company with the cash it needs to get back to its original purpose: a cancer vaccine.
Both BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use the mRNA messenger to instruct the body to make the proteins to attack the virus. Tureci said a similar principle could tell the immune system to attack tumors as well.
“We have several different cancer vaccines based on mRNA,” Tureci said. “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.”
But, Tureci and her husband’s jobs right now are to continue delivering much-need coronavirus vaccines where they need to be and to ensure that the vaccines work on new variants of the virus.