Speaking to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on the Sunday programme in October 2022, Professors Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci indicated that mRNA treatments against various cancers could be available as soon as 2030. The professors co-founded the German company BioNTech in 2008 with the intention of “using mRNA to activate the immune system against a patient’s individual tumours”. They believe that this approach can be “tailored” against several kinds of diseases.
During the COVID-19 pandemic BioNTech and Pfizer attracted media attention for their collaboration in developing an mRNA vaccine against the disease. BioNTech reports that this vaccine was the “first mRNA drug approved for human use” as well as the “fastest vaccine” that targeted a new pathogen in “the history of medicine”.
Professors Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci were married in 2002, 6 years before the establishment of BioNTech. They, along with their company, gained a public profile thanks to BioNTech’s role in the development of a vaccine during the pandemic. Due to what The Guardian described in 2020 as “scientific rigour, unrelenting work ethic, and appetite for entrepreneurship” the pair joined Germany’s rich list at number 93 after the vaccine success. However, the pandemic was a mere distraction from the main event for the Professors and their researchers, who have several trials in progress.
Addressing the BBC in October, Professor Tureci described mRNA as a “blueprint”.
“When you use mRNA as a vaccine, the mRNA is a blueprint for the ‘wanted poster’ of the enemy – in this case cancer antigens which distinguish cancer cells from normal cells.”
With the proven success of mRNA during the COVID-19 pandemic, BioNTech returns to its roots with renewed energy. Targeting bowel cancer, melanoma, and other cancer types, the research will attempt to get to the bottom of one of the most evasive diseases.
“Every step, every patient we treat in our cancer trials helps us to find out more about what we are against and how to address that.”
However, Professor Tureci emphasised the need to be cautious when describing a “cure for cancer”. Although they have had a “number of breakthroughs”, the company will continue to work on them with the same “rigour” that earned them their notoriety.
Furthermore, BioNTech is facing legal action from another big name in the mRNA game, Moderna. This has the potential to cause further disruptions to the programme. For Professor Sahin, though, the work they did is “original”.
“We have spent 20 years of research in developing these types of treatments and of course we will fight for this, for our intellectual property.”
We look forward to hearing more on the potential that mRNA has against cancer at the World Vaccine Congress in Washington 2023. To join us get your tickets now.