Behind Covid vaccine, a couple with shared passion for cancer research

Positive data on BioNTech and US partner Pfizer Inc’s Covid-19 vaccine is an unlikely success for the married couple behind the German biotech firm, who have devoted their lives to harnessing the immune system against cancer.

Pfizer said on Monday said its experimental vaccine was more than 90% effective in preventing Covid-19 based on initial data from a large study.

From humble roots as the son of a Turkish immigrant working at a Ford factory in Cologne, BioNTech chief executive Ugur Sahin, 55, now figures among the 100 richest Germans, together with his wife and fellow board member Oezlem Tuereci, 53, according to weekly Welt am Sonntag.

The market value of Nasdaq-listed BioNTech, which the pair co-founded, ballooned to $21 billion as of Friday’s close from $4.6 billion a year ago, with the firm set to play a major role in mass immunisation against the coronavirus.

“Despite his achievements, he never changed from being incredibly humble and personable,” said Matthias Kromayer, board member of venture capital firm MIG AG, whose funds have backed BioNTech since its inceon in 2008.

He added Sahin would typically walk into business meetings wearing jeans and carrying his signature bicycle helmet and backpack with him.

Doggedly pursuing his childhood dream of studying medicine and becoming a physician, Sahin worked at teaching hospitals in Cologne and the southwestern city of Homburg, where he met Tuereci during his early academic career.

Medical research and oncology became a shared passion.

Tuereci, the daughter of a Turkish physician who had migrated to Germany, said in a media interview that even on the day of their wedding, both made time for lab work.

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Together they honed in on the immune system as a potential ally in the fight against cancer and tried to address the unique genetic makeup of each tumour.

Founded in 2008, BioNTech pursued a much broader range of cancer immunotherapy tools. That included mRNA, a versatile messenger substance to send genetic instructions into cells.

The BioNTech story took a twist when Sahin in January came across a scientific paper on a new coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan and it struck him how small the step was from anti-cancer mRNA drugs to mRNA-based viral vaccines.

BioNTech quickly assigned about 500 staff to project “light speed” to work on several possible compounds, winning pharma giant Pfizer and Chinese drugmaker Fosun as partners in March.

Behind Covid vaccine, a couple with shared passion for cancer research