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Earlier this week, TechCrunch Disrupt kicked off with the CEO of BioNTech, Uğur Şahin, talking about the current and future advancements of biotech and mRNA technology. But Şahin isn’t exactly a household name despite the pandemic propelling his company into fame and fortune.
Born on September 29, 1965, Uğur Şahin is a German immunologist and the chief executive officer of BioNTech, which helped develop the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19. Together with his wife Özlem Türeci, they founded the biotech company BioNTech SE, based in Mainz, Germany, in 2008.
Formerly an oncologist (or a cancer doctor), Şahin’s initial goals for his company were based around Messenger RNA (mRNA) based drugs to use as individualized cancer immunotherapies.
Since the company’s value has increased, Şahin and Türeci became the first Germans with Turkish roots to be listed among Germany’s top 100 wealthiest people, with Bloomberg estimating that his net worth alone is at least US$14 billion.
At the time of his company’s founding, it was clear to Sahin that mRNA advancements were still in their infancy. “At that time, mRNA was not potent enough,” Şahin recalled during TechCrunch Disrupt. “It was just a weak molecule. But the idea was great, so we invested many years in an academic setting to improve that. And in 2006, we realized ‘Wow, this is now working. Okay, it’s time to initiate a company.’”
BioNTech was largely unknown by the majority of the public until around 2013, when the company started making its first deals and partnerships. By October 2019, the company had decided to go public only a few weeks before the first COVID-19 case was recorded. Then, in January 2020, when the world was hit with the rapidly emerging COVID-19 pandemic, Şahin and his teams pivoted from cancer to COVID-19 vaccine development.
“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. Şahin said in an interview with The New York Times last October. “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.”
The mRNA technology is genetic instructions for our cells. With it, scientists can create non-harmful proteins in cells that resemble the proteins of something that could be harmful such as cancer. What happens is that those instructions can be used to train your immune system to hunt down those harmful proteins in your body and fight it off.
“The protein fragments created from the mRNA signal are recognized by the immune system as foreign,” said Van Morris, M.D. “The immune system kills those cells and says, ‘I’m going to see if I can find any other cells in the body with these foreign proteins and kills those, too.’”
Morris added that “We’re hopeful that with the personalized vaccine, we’re priming the immune system to go after the residual tumor cells, clear them out and cure the patient.”
“We can develop classical pharmaceuticals like a vaccine here [in the case of COVID], but on the other side, also really continue to follow our vision,” Şahin said during his interview. The vision Şahin is referring to is about how his company can use mRNA technology to help find better alternatives for cancer treatment.
“What we want to accomplish is … to provide the patient the best possible treatment based on our extra knowledge of the planet at that time … Information is now so fast-changing, so we are talking, for example, about adapting our vaccine to COVID-19 variants,” says Şahin. “But the same can be considered for adapting a vaccine of a cancer patient toward a changing tumor. So it’s technically the same step, and so that means regardless of what we do here, we can apply the principles to treating patients, and that’s an exciting prospect.”