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BioNTech vaccine developers get highest honors

Insa Wrede | Uwe Hessler
March 19, 2021

Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin have been awarded high honors for contributing to the "containment of the coronavirus pandemic." But the BioNTech founders feel uncomfortable with the cult status they have in Germany.

A picture of Özlem Türeci, Ugur Sahin and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier during the award ceremony.
The Order of Merit presented to Özlem Türeci (center) and Ugur Sahin (right) was the first awarded by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in person this yearImage: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Hardly a year ago, Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin were still largely unknown names in the world of Big Pharma. Having founded their small biotech firm with the name BioNTech only in 2008, the work of the married couple focused primarily on cancer research.

But due to the devastating coronavirus pandemic and BioNTech's project named "Lightspeed" launched in mid-January 2020, erstwhile the husband and wife team have become much feted around the world for developing the first vaccine against COVID-19 — the disease caused by an infection with the virus. Their shot, produced with US partner Pfizer, has proven more than 90% effective in creating immunity against the original virus, and reportedly also against its British and South African variants.

Therefore, one can rightly say BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin and his chief medical officer, Özlem Türeci, are saving the lives of millions of people around the world.

Germany's highest honors

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier presented the Knight Commander's Cross of the Federal Order of Merit to both 

Türeci and Sahin on Friday. They are honored for making "a decisive contribution to the containment of the coronavirus pandemic," the German president said.

A picture of Germany's Knight Commander's Cross
The Knight Commander's Cross belongs to the second of four sub-classes of Germany's Order of MeritImage: dpa

The Knight Commander's Cross is part of a group of decorations called the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. The Order was called into being in 1951 by the first postwar German president, Theodor Heuss, and has since been awarded to more than 260,000 people. It comprises four groups, with eight regular and one special class, and is intended to "visibly express recognition and gratitude to deserving men and women of the German people and of foreign countries."

Among the recipients of the highest honors Germany bestows, you find prominent foreigners like the British Queen, Elizabeth II, and former US President George W. Bush as well famous German figures like ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Dance company director Pina Bausch, comedian Vicco von Bülow and a huge number of Germans from all walks of life have also been honored for their service to Germany.

Shifting focus to save the world

According to the German president, the couple is also receiving the cross for their "trailblazing and globally recognized research" in the field of mRNA technology. The novel gene therapy in vaccine development uses a small part of the virus's genetic information to spark an immune response by producing protein directly in the human cell.

Prior to their research on COVID-19, Sahin and Türeci were already attempting to harness the human body's ability to defend itself from bacteria and viruses. They sought to fight cancer with an immunotherapy that stimulates self-healing mechanisms and triggers the body's own "internal police force" to render malignant tumors harmless. 

Cancer and mRNA vaccines

Sahin and Türeci's background in mRNA research allowed them to develop the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine in the unusually short timespan of less than a year, making it the first shot against COVID-19 available in the world, following emergency use approval in the United States in November 2020.

In December, Sahin told DW that he didn't see himself as a new "superhero" in vaccine research. "We were only able to do this because we have a fantastic team. A team of international scientists and staff from 60 different countries who have been working with us for years on this topic [mRNA research]," he said.

A picture of Ugur Sahin
Sahin sees himself as an immune engineer who tries to use the body's antiviral mechanisms to treat cancerImage: Florian Gaertner/photothek/imago images

A lifelong passion 

Apart from the couple's meteoric rise to scientific stardom, little is known about the private lives of Sahin and Türeci.

Born in Turkey, Ugur Sahin was 4 when he and his mother moved to Cologne, Germany, to join his father, who worked for the Ford company. After graduating from high school, he studied medicine at the University of Cologne. "I was interested in immunotherapy," said Sahin, who is 54. He added that he was interested in how the immune system worked and how it could be trained to identify and attack cancer cells.

In 1992, Sahin finished medical school and worked as a doctor for internal medicine and hematology and oncology at the University of Cologne for several years before transferring to the Saarland University Medical Center. There, he met Türeci, a medical student and the daughter of a doctor who had come to Germany from Istanbul.

A picture of Ölem Türeci walking along a corridor in the BioNTech factory building
For BioNTech's medical director, Özlem Türeci, patient-centered care is what matters mostImage: Biontech/dpa/picture alliance

A lecturer at the University of Mainz, Özlem Türeci is considered a pioneer in cancer immunotherapy. "Influenced by my father, who worked as a doctor, I could not imagine any other profession even when I was a young girl," Türeci told the online website wissenschaftsjahr.de. "My father's practice was in the family home. When we were kids, we would play among the patients. There was no strict separation between work and life in our home."

Like her father, she wanted to help people. First, she thought of becoming a nun, she told the German magazine Impulse in 2011, but then she decided to go into medicine.

Türeci and Sahin married in 2002, when he was already working at the University Medical Center Mainz. Even on their wedding day, Sahin spent some time in the lab — both before the couple went to the registry office and again afterward.

A picture of the new BioNTech vaccine production facility in Marburg
BioNTech recently opened a new factory in Marburg, expecting to ramp up vaccine production by 750 million doses a yearImage: Thomas Lohnes/AFP

Founding BioNTech

In 2001, the couple launched the Ganymed Pharmaceuticals biopharmaceutical company to develop immunotherapeutic cancer drugs. They sold the firm in 2016 for €422 million ($502 million).

In 2008, Sahin and Türeci founded BioNTech, a company that for the most part develops technologies and drugs for individualized cancer immunotherapies — none of which has yet made it to the approval stage. More than 1,300 people from over 60 countries currently work at BioNTech, and more than half of them are women.

Andreas Kuhn, BioNTech's senior vice president of RNA Biochemistry and Manufacturing, said that rarely had he found someone as smart as Sahin, who is always "one step ahead of other people."

"If you come up with a new idea, he has already reached that stage and anticipated it," Kuhn told an audience during the 2019 Mustafa Award ceremony. "I think it is one of his strengths that he can get people excited about a cause."

There is no financial reward in being honored with Germany's Order of Merit. But the years of research are nevertheless paying off for Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci. Sahin owns 18% of BioNTech shares which are listed on New York's Nasdaq Stock Exchange. After successfully launching their vaccine, the couple has suddenly found themselves among the 100 richest Germans — at least on paper.

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