Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci are the 'dream couple' behind BioNTech-Pfizer’s experimental Covid-19 vaccine
Children of Turkish immigrants, BioNTech's Sahin and Tureci are now among Germany’s richest 100 people
The world has been waiting for good news on Covid-19 vaccines. Monday’s announcement by Pfizer and BioNTech that their experimental coronavirus vaccine was more than 90% effective has understandably created a lot of excitement. But behind this is the scientist couple – Dr. Ugur Sahin (55), Germany-based BioNTech’s co-founder and chief executive officer, and his wife and the company’s chief medical officer Dr Özlem Türeci (53) – who share a passion for medical research and have devoted their lives to fighting cancer. Children of Turkish immigrants, Sahin and Türeci now feature among the 100 richest Germans.
Reports are now hailing them as the “dream team” and Germany’s “biggest immigrant success stories.” They sold their first business Ganymed Pharmaceuticals for $1.4 billion in 2016, and BioNTech’s value has soared to $21 billion – up from $4.6 billion a year ago. “It was the couple’s interest in cutting edge new treatments for cancer that made their fortune — and that has resulted in the new (experimental) coronavirus vaccine. They became fascinated by the possibility of using modified genetic code to teach the body’s immune system to fight cancer…But when the coronavirus pandemic broke in January, Professor Sahin gathered his team and told them BioNTech was switching its focus to the virus. ‘We have to deal with this virus. It’s a human task,’ he told them,” reports The Telegraph.
According to BioNTech, the company was founded in 2008 on the understanding that every cancer patient’s tumor is unique and therefore, each patient’s treatment should be individualized. “To translate this idea into reality, we have combined ground-breaking research with cutting-edge technologies to develop pioneering therapeutics for cancer and beyond. As we prove the value of our approach in the clinic, we will continue to build the partnerships, manufacturing, and team required to bring individualized treatments to patients worldwide. From our roots in Mainz, Germany, we are driven to become the leading global biotechnology company for individualized cancer medicine,” notes the website.
Born in Turkey, Sahin moved to Germany when he was four. He came from humble roots and was the son of an immigrant worker who worked at a Ford factory in Cologne. Trained as a doctor, Sahin became a professor and worked at teaching hospitals in Cologne and the southwestern city of Homburg, while specializing in cancer treatment. He earned an MD in 1990 from the University of Cologne. Sahin remains in academia and continues to teach at Mainz University, where colleagues describe him as ‘humble’ and he is known for turning up to business meetings carrying his bicycle helmet. “He is a very modest and humble person. Appearances mean little to him. But he wants to create the structures that allow him to realize his visions and that’s where his aspirations are far from modest,” Matthias Theobald, an oncology professor at Mainz University, who has worked with Sahin for 20 years, told Reuters.
“Despite his achievements, he never changed from being incredibly humble and personable,” says Matthias Kromayer, board member of venture capital firm MIG AG, whose funds have backed BioNTech since its inception.
It is at Homburg where Sahin met Türeci. “Medical research and oncology became a shared passion,” according to Reuters. “Together they honed in on the immune system as a potential ally in the fight against cancer and tried to address the unique genetic makeup of each tumor,” it adds.
The daughter of a Turkish physician who had migrated to Germany, Türeci said during an interview that on the day of their wedding too, both made time for laboratory work. She earned her MD from Saarland University Faculty of Medicine, Homburg. “Although she was also the child of immigrants, Türeci had a somewhat more conventional path to a medical career. Her father was a doctor who immigrated from Istanbul and she was born in Germany,” says The Telegraph.
On November 9, BioNTech and Pfizer said that their vaccine candidate was found to be more than 90% effective in preventing coronavirus in participants without evidence of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection. “The first interim analysis of our global Phase 3 study provides evidence that a vaccine may effectively prevent Covid-19. This is a victory for innovation, science, and a global collaborative effort. When we embarked on this journey 10 months ago this is what we aspired to achieve,” notes Sahin.
Describing their ongoing efforts against Covid-19, Sahin states on the website, “We feel a duty to exploit our full technology and immunotherapy expertise to help address the Covid-19 pandemic emergency. Our aim is clear: Making a potential vaccine available to the public as quickly as possible -- worldwide.”