How ‘science fiction’ idea for treating cancer led to groundbreaking COVID vaccine, the doctors behind the vaccine told a weekend audience in Spain.
Speaking in the city of Oviedo, where they received a prestigious Princess of Asturias Award from the Spanish royal family, BioNTech co-founders Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci gave intriguing details of how their groundbreaking vaccine came about.
Its most direct roots trace back to the 1990s. That is when the two doctors, who both came from immigrant Turkish families, were working at an oncology ward in a German hospital but were “depressed” about how often cancer treatments end in failure.
They were compelled to find solutions, so at night, they dove back into the lab. Sahin and Tureci are also immunologists, focused on figuring out how to get immune cells to attack cancer cells.
“Our motivation from the very beginning was to combine our two worlds: the curiosity, understanding, and development of science and helping our patients,” Sahin explained.
Together they identified what makes tumor cells different from normal cells, which can be revealed by certain markers like antigens.
But training the immune system to kill cancer cells was not as simple as targeting one marker and giving the same vaccine to every patient. So they decided that individualized cancer treatments were the ideal approach.
Their idea was to take a biopsy from each patient, study its particular unique markers, and prepare personalized vaccines.
“That was a crazy idea, like science fiction in the 1990s,” said Sahin. “We didn’t dare talk about it. A lot of times, scientists want to stay credible so they don’t talk about their biggest ideas.”
It was far-fetched because it was extremely complicated. They needed to make sure that the technology was flexible, strong enough to annihilate cancer, and able to be rapidly manufactured. Where cancer is involved, timing can make all the difference in the world.