Highly encouraging evidence of the effectiveness of the BioNTech vaccine and its American partner, Pfizer, in the treatment of coronavirus is an unexpected success for the married couple behind the German biotechnology company, who have dedicated their lives to shield the immune system from cancer.
Pfizer and BioNTech are the first pharmaceutical companies in the West to successfully present data from a large-scale clinical trial of a coronavirus vaccine. The two companies said they have so far found no serious safety concerns and are expected to apply for an emergency permit from the US later this month.
Having humble roots as the son of a Turkish immigrant working at a Ford plant in Cologne, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin, 55, is now one of the 100 richest Germans, along with his wife and fellow colleague Eio Toureci, 53, according to the weekly Welt am Sonntag.
The market value of the Nasdaq BioNTech listed company, which the couple co-founded, had reached $21 billion at the close of trading last Friday from $4.6 billion a year ago, with the company playing a significant role in mass immunization / vaccination against coronavirus.
“Despite his achievements, he has never changed from being incredibly humble and cheerful,” said Matthias Cromayer, a board member of venture capital firm MIG AG, whose funds have supported BioNTech since its inception in 2008.
He added that Sahin usually goes to business meetings wearing jeans and brings with him his bicycle helmet and a backpack.
Sahin worked hard on his childhood dream of studying medicine and becoming a doctor, working at university hospitals in Cologne and the southwestern city of Homburg, where he met Tureci in the early stages of his academic career.
Medical research and oncology became their common passion.
Tureci, the daughter of a Turkish doctor who had immigrated to Germany, told the media that even on their wedding day, they both spent time working in the laboratory.
Together they focused on the immune system as a potential ally in the fight against cancer and tried to tackle the unique genetic makeup of each tumor.
They started their business in 2001 when they founded Ganymed Pharmaceuticals to develop antibodies to cancer, but Sahin – by that time he was a professor at the University of Mainz – never gave up academic research and teaching.
They won funding from MIG AG, as well as Thomas and Andreas Stringman, who sold the over-the-counter drug company Hexal to Novartis in 2005.
Their business was sold to Japanese Astellas in 2016 for $1.4 billion. Meanwhile, the team behind Ganymed, was already busy setting up BioNTech, which was founded in 2008 to look for a much wider range of cancer immunotherapy tools.
This included Messenger RNA (or mRNA), a flexible Messenger substance that sends genetic instructions to cells.
“Dream – Team”
For MIG’s Kromayer, Toureci and Sahin are a “dream” team, as they have “reconciled” their visions with the limitations of reality.
BioNTech’s story was about to change when Sahin stumbled upon a scientific study in January of a new coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan and was struck by how small the step was from mRNA anticancer drugs to mRNA-based viral vaccines.
BioNTech quickly commissioned about 500 employees to work at “speed of light” on various possible chemical compounds and combinations, convincing pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and Chinese Fosun to partner with BioNTech in March.
Matthias Theobald, an associate professor of oncology at the University of Mainz who has worked with Sahin for 20 years, said his austerity stance did not go hand in hand with his unwavering ambition to transform medicine, as evidenced by his strong belief in a vaccine against COVID-19.
“He is a very modest and humble man. Appearance does not matter to him. “But he wants to create the structures that will allow him to realize his visions and that is where his ambitions are far from moderate,” according to Theobald.