BioNTech founders win top German medicine award | Science | In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 21.09.2021

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BioNTech founders win top German medicine award

Millions of people around the world have received the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19. Now the team behind BioNTech is receiving Germany's biggest award for medicine.

Watch video 01:25

BioNTech team win top German science award for mRNA work

Three scientists from BioNTech, the German biotechnology company behind one of the main COVID vaccines, will receive Germany's most prestigious medical award in 2022.

"Ugur Sahin, Özlem Türeci and Katalin Kariko are awarded the Paul Ehrlich- and Ludwig Darmstaedter-Preis 2022 for their vision and perseverance in the development of RNA as a therapeutic principle," said Thomas Boehm, chairman of the Paul Ehrlich Foundation.

BioNTech scientist Katalin Kariko

Katalin Kariko is a longtime RNA researcher

The three scientists had cross-fertilized each other's work, he said. "This combination was ultimately the decisive factor for their success."

The award winners were initially aiming to develop and advance new cancer therapies.

"Imagine if you could individualize the therapy for every single cancer patient, based on the genetic characteristics of the respective tumor. Imagine if this individualized cancer therapy was reproducible, produced in a timely manner and at a low cost. We want to change the treatment paradigm for cancer patients worldwide," Sahin explained on BioNTech's website.

Sahin and his wife, Türeci, founded BioNTech, headquartered in Mainz, Germany, in 2008.

Watch video 02:24

Meet the couple behind the BioNTech vaccine

Working with RNA

At BioNTech, the focus had long been on the development of RNA technologies. Back when BioNtTech was founded, however, most scientists specialized in researching DNA.

"DNA virtually lasts forever, otherwise you wouldn't still be able to read the DNA of prehistoric humans from their bones," said Boehm. "The problem with RNA is that it is a very unstable molecule and therefore seemed unsuitable as an active agent."

Because of the short half-life of RNA, an organism can react quickly to changed conditions and adapt the genetic program accordingly. What is advantageous in the organism causes problems in the therapeutic application. In order to produce an effective vaccine based on messenger RNA (mRNA), the researchers had to think of something.

"The trick is to package this RNA inside fat droplets in liposomes. In this way, the otherwise unstable RNA is kept as if in a plastic bag and is protected from enzymes that would attack and destroy it," explained Boehm, adding that this allowed the RNA to be transported safely into the cells that trigger the immune response in the organism.

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Developing a vaccine in record time

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in January 2020, Sahin and Türeci focused their work on finding a vaccine against the previously unknown viral infection. At the time, it was unlikely anyone believed it would take BioNTech less than a year to develop a promising mRNA vaccine.

First, the researchers had to find out what the new coronavirus' genetic information looked like.

"How the RNA has to be packaged was known by then, and so the scientists were able to produce the corresponding RNA molecules for the production of an RNA vaccine within a few weeks. This is a major advantage of an RNA vaccine. It can be produced in large quantities virtually overnight," said Boehm.

With their discovery, BioNTech and its founders wrote medical history. "This rapid development of a vaccine is unique," said Boehm.

Just before Christmas 2020 BioNTech, together with the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, received EU approval for their vaccine, which played and still plays a crucial role in the global containment of the coronavirus pandemic.

But cancer research also continues to be a large part of their work. With the success of BioNTech, the researchers now have the necessary funding at their disposal. 

An illustration of a cancer cell

BioNTech was initially looking into RNA as part of its cancer research

A community effort

Sahin himself has emphasized again and again that it is not only his personal success, but that of many scientists and researchers. This includes the third-prize winner, Hungarian-born Katalin Kariko. Kariko, a biochemist, has always specialized in mRNA research. She never lost sight of this, even when DNA research dominated in the 1990s.

Because of its instability, the use of RNA simply did not seem realistic and corresponding projects were hardly funded or not funded at all. Kariko repeatedly encountered a lack of understanding and little recognition. But she persevered in her research on the role of the messenger substance mRNA.

Kaliko, who joined BioNTech in 2013 and is now senior vice president, was instrumental in this development and eventually in the development of the COVID vaccine.

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The beginning of success

At the age of 4 in 1969, Sahin moved with his mother from Iskenderun in Turkey to live with his father in Cologne. It was there that he completed his schooling and studied at university, where he received his PhD in medicine in 1990. He worked as an internist and oncologist at the University Hospital of Cologne, qualifying as a professor of molecular medicine and immunology in 1999.

In 1992, he moved to the University of Saarland in Homburg, where he met his wife, Türeci. A short time later, they both went to Mainz, where Türeci qualified as a professor of molecular medicine in 2002. Both scientists focused on cancer research and the development of immunotherapies against cancer. Sahin has also worked at the Institute for Experimental Immunology at the University Hospital Zurich and the University Hospital Mainz.

All three researchers have already received several international honors. Now they will receive the renowned Paul Ehrlich- and Ludwig Darmstädter-Preis at a ceremony at Frankfurt's St. Paul's Church on March 14, 2022.

The most prestigious medical award in Germany comes with €120,000 (about $140,000). Several researchers who received the award went on to become Nobel Prize winners, such as Harald zur Hausen, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier and James P. Allison.

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