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Cancer Is Next Target for mRNA Vaccine Technology


German scientists, CEOs and founders of BioNTech, Ozlem Tureci and Ugur Sahin pose with the Federal Cross of Merit awarded to them by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, on March 19, 2021. (Odd Andersen/Pool via REUTERS)
Cancer Is Next Target for mRNA Vaccine Technology
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Ozlem Tureci started the German drug company BioNTech with her husband Ugur Sahin in 2008.

The two are now known for doing important work on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against the coronavirus. But they started their company to work on a cure for cancer. In fact, the doctors started a different company about 20 years ago to work on cancer drugs. They sold that company for about $1 billion in 2016.

BioNTech was looking for a way to cause the body’s immune system to fight tumors with a technology called messenger RNA, or mRNA.

In early 2020, Tureci and Sahin heard about a new virus that was infecting people in China. They thought they could find a way to use their technology to fight it. They had already been working with Pfizer on a new influenza vaccine. They created a new project, to find a vaccine for the new coronavirus, and called it “Project Lightspeed.”

Within 11 months, Britain approved use of the coronavirus vaccine they developed working with Pfizer. One week later, the U.S. approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for emergency use. Now, tens of millions of people around the world have received their vaccine.

Tureci said she was not worried about finding a way to make a coronavirus vaccine. Instead, she was worried about how her small company would create enough of the vaccine for all who would need it.

Pfizer and BioNTech worked with a Chinese company called Fosun Pharma to increase their ability to produce the vaccine.

“It pays off to make bold decisions and to trust that if you have an extraordinary team, you will be able to solve any problem and obstacle which comes your way in real time,” Tureci told the Associated Press. She said working together with international companies was important to their success.

A picture taken shows on March 2, 2021, shows an empty vial of the Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Garlan, western France. (Photo by Fred TANNEAU / AFP)
A picture taken shows on March 2, 2021, shows an empty vial of the Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Garlan, western France. (Photo by Fred TANNEAU / AFP)


Future of mRNA

The vaccine from Moderna also uses mRNA technology. Treatments of this kind use mRNA to carry instructions that tell the body to make proteins that attack viruses. Tureci and Sahin said they think they can do the same thing for cancer tumors.

“We have several different cancer vaccines based on mRNA,” Tureci said.

She said she thinks BioNTech will develop its cancer drugs so they can be offered to people within a few years. Right now, however, the company is continuing to work to be sure it can fulfill coronavirus vaccine orders and deal with variants of the virus.

Tureci said people should trust that all of the vaccines are safe for people to use. She said the vaccines were developed quickly, but still observed "a very rigid process."

She said officials around the world are paying careful attention to how people react to the vaccines from BioNTech and other drug companies.

National honor

Germany recognized what its two citizens did for the world in developing a successful vaccine. Tureci and Sahin received the Order of Merit on March 19. It is one of Germany’s highest honors. Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier presented the award while Chancellor Angela Merkel attended.

Tureci said she was pleased to be recognized. But she said many people deserve credit for helping with the vaccine.

“It’s about the effort of many,” she said. “The way we see it, this is an acknowledgment of this effort and also a celebration of science.”

I’m Dan Friedell.

Frank Jordans wrote this story for the Associated Press. Dan Friedell adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

Did you know about the wife and husband team between the BioNTech vaccine? We want to hear from you. Tell us in the Comments Section and visit our Facebook page.

Editor's Note: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna produce the two currently-approved vaccines using mRNA technology. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified another vaccine as using the technology. We regret the error.

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Words in This Story

immune system –n. the system that protects your body from diseases and infections

tumor –n. a mass of tissue found in or on the body that is made up of abnormal cells

bold –adj. not afraid of danger or difficult situations

extraordinary –adj. extremely good or impressive

obstacle –n. a problem that makes it difficult to reach a goal; a barrier

variant –n. something that is different in some way from others of the same kind

rigid –adj. unwilling to lower requirements or compromise quality

credit –n. praise or special attention that is given to someone for doing something or for making something happen

acknowledge –n. the act of showing that you know, admit, or accept that something exists or is true

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