Uğur şahin is a scientist at heart: BioNTech’s cofounder and CEO would rather be in the laboratory than almost anywhere else. The day he married his wife, Özlem Türeci’s fellow founder of BioNTech, the two returned to work after their wedding. (Türeci is the Chief Medical Officer of BioNTech.)
The gentle Turkish immigrant, who moved with his parents to Germany at age 4, is more of a college professor than the strong managing director of the 27-billion-dollar market cap group. He is actually a lecturer – he has been a professor for more than 20 years at the University of Mainz.
He still cycles to work from his Mainz apartment every day, since he and his wife do not have a car, and sometimes he can still be found in the laboratories in his business. However, the relationship between his company and Pfizer has made BioNTech one of the world’s most significant biotechnologies, through the co-development of the first approved Covid-19 vaccine. This achievement has also made Sahin a billionaire, worth 4,8 billion dollars net.
The organization with millions of vaccines already delivered predicts that 2.5 billion doses of a vaccine will be generated by the end of this year — enough to protect over 15% of the world against fatal illness. All this has accelerated the biotech company’s growth. The company currently employs more than 1900 people on two continents, of which 600 have been recruited since 2019, although sales rose by almost 350 percent in 2020 compared with the previous year. Its estimated income from vaccines Covid-19 in 2021 is 11.5 billion dollars.
The victory of the vaccine Covid-19, says Sahin, “motivates us to use progress to speed up our other programmes.’
Covid Vaccinations 2.0
More than 200 million people have been given the BioNTech-Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine in more than 65 countries — but companies continue to keep tweaking and testing the vaccine. Even if the end of the pandemic is in sight, the increasing number of variants of Covid-19 is a significant impediment. Some of these forms have already proved to be more infectious, more fatal, and less vaccinated. Although the BioNTech vaccine is successful against the B.1.1.7 variant which was first discovered in the UK, the B.1.351 variant which now predominates in South Africa may not be as powerful.
In its annual report, BioNTech said it expects to conduct clinical trials to test its vaccine against various variants, and that it will produce new, more specific versions of its vaccine. The company is also considering whether a third booster shot will improve immunity 6-12 months after the second dose of the vaccine. “We already know that our vaccine prevents hospitalization and prevents death among people,” says Sahin, “this is a wonderful achievement, of course.”
The vaccine is currently only approved for people aged 16 and older in the US and elsewhere but a new study shows that the vaccine is 100% effective in preventing disease in adolescents aged 12-15 years. Research is still underway in even younger children.
The scientists intend to also test more robust formulations for the presently weak, low-temperature mRNA vaccine. They are also looking at a creative way to transport the vaccine, as well as creating new, more durable vaccine versions: by freezing it. If this succeeds, the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine may be expanded into low-income countries with less infrastructure.
Fight against HIV and TB
Covid-19 is not the only BioNTech virus. In 2019 BioNTech announced a collaboration of $55 million for developing new therapies for HIV and tuberculosis with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The HIV vaccine currently requires the use of mRNA in the body’s primary T cells to combat the virus. Those therapies are only in preclinical phases to date.
Some of these innovative mRNA therapies are years away – but the company continues to thrive and compete with drug giants like Genentech and Sanofi. For βahin, as a real scientist, what he expects is data that will emerge in the next few months to direct the future of his business. “It will be highly insightful in the next two years,” he says.
BioNTech isn’t Şahin’s first venture into the field of biotechnology. Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, which he co-founded with Türeci to develop new cancer therapies, was the name of the company. In 2016, the company was purchased for $1.4 billion by the Japanese pharmaceutical company Astellas. However, Şahin’s work as an oncologist with cancer patients kept him inspired to pursue new cancer therapies. BioNTech’s study was previously focused on how the immune system deals with cancer before the pandemic. “A big question for us when we first started cancer research was why so many cancer therapies are failing, and what is the root cause?” Şahin said.
A personalized cancer vaccine is one of the company’s most cutting-edge products. It is created using a patient’s cancer tissue samples, the identification of distinct genetic markers in that cancer, and the use of mRNA to induce the patient’s immune response into attacking those markets. In a nutshell, mRNA instructs the immune system to target and eliminate cancer in your body.
According to Şahin, two of the company’s cancer-fighting vaccines are currently in phase 2 clinical trials. “There’s a good chance we’ll have our first cancer mRNA drugs ready to apply for approval in 2023 or 2024,” he says.
Gene Therapy and mRNA Therapy in Combination
In addition to discovering new therapies, Şahin’s company is looking at ways to improve the efficacy of currently available cancer drugs. CAR-T cell therapy is one of these, and it allows a patient’s immune system to be retrained to fight cancer.
However, for unexplained reasons, it is not always effective. BioNTech is working on an mRNA booster that can be used in conjunction with CAR-T cell therapy to increase the number of modified T cells in the body that are searching for more precise cancer targets. One significant benefit is that it has the ability to treat cancers that are difficult to treat using CAR-T therapy alone. “We are paving the way for the first gene therapy and mRNA combination therapies,” Şahin says. “This is a brand-new way of doing things.”
Some of these latest mRNA therapies will take years to develop, but in the meantime, the company’s business is booming, and it continues to sign deals with pharma behemoths like Genentech and Sanofi. As for Şahin, he’s eagerly anticipating the data that will appear in the coming months to direct his company’s future, as a true scientist would. He predicts that the next two years will be “highly insightful.”