scientist couple in world highlight

scientist couple in global spotlight

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Advances in a COVID-19 vaccine have put the humble couple behind German company BioNTech into the global spotlight, with attention inevitably focused on their backgrounds as children of Turkish immigrants.

Ugur Sahin and his wife Ozlem Tureci founded BioNTech in Mainz, West Germany, in 2008 and, together with the US giant Pfizer, are developing the leading candidate for the global hunt for a vaccine.

Monday's announcement that her vaccine was more than 90 percent effective in studies sparked news coverage around the world, raising stock markets and hopes.

BioNTech is now valued at $ 25.8 billion (€ 21.8 billion), more than Germany's largest lender, Deutsche Bank.

Sahin, the managing director, came to the country when he was four years old and his father got a job at a Ford plant in Cologne as a member of the guest worker generation of migrant workers, many of whom ended up staying in Germany.

Tureci, BioNTech's Chief Medical Officer, is the daughter of a Turkish doctor who emigrated from Istanbul.

Described as hardworking and passionate, the two seem to be wary of superlatives or the temptation to set up their journey as a model for successful integration.

"I'm not sure I really want to," Sahin told The Guardian newspaper.

"As a society we have to ask ourselves how we can give everyone the opportunity to make a contribution to society. I'm a random example of someone with a migration background. I could have been German or Spanish either."

"Simply authentic"

Although the general public has only now discovered them, the two have long been recognized in the scientific community as leading figures in cancer research, with the self-proclaimed goal of "revolutionizing" cancer medicine.

Sahin, 55, specialized in molecular medicine and immunology and trained first at the University of Cologne and then at the Saarland University Medical Center, where he crossed with the medical student Tureci.

They married in 2002 and even returned to the lab on their wedding day. You have a daughter.

Tureci has described her childhood as closely related to medicine. "My father's practice was in the family home," she once said on a German science website, adding that she could "imagine" no other job than that of a doctor.

Neither of the two saw themselves as managing directors of a company, but their lines of research seemed "too daring" for the pharmaceutical industry to take notice, she told Tagesspiegel daily.

They founded their first biotechnology company, Ganymede, in 2001 and sold it in 2016, while their second, BioNTech, developed a new generation of one-on-one therapies for cancer patients – based on the same technology now used in their coronavirus vaccine.

With around 1,500 employees today, it is supported by large private investors.

Two of them, Thomas Struengmann and Michael Motschmann, described the couple this week as "simply authentic people, with great integrity, hardworking and exceptionally intelligent".

At BioNTech's headquarters in Mainz, on a street with the favorable name "An der Goldgrube", scientists are working on a new technology known as messenger RNA. In this process, strands of genes are injected into the body, which dictate the cells' defense mechanism against a disease.

BioNTech teams have suspended their work on cancer since January and focused their efforts on the fight against COVID-19. The project is called the "Project of Light".

No vaccine based on this technology has yet been brought to market.

After identifying promising vaccination plans, the company entered into a partnership with American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in March.

With their vaccine breakthrough, Sahin and Tureci made it into the top 100 richest people in Germany.

But when the couple learned of the encouraging results of their late-stage vaccination study, they told The Guardian of their relief and how they had "partied a little" before settling down for "cups of tea."

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© 2020 AFP

The founders of BioNTech: Scientists in the global spotlight (2020, November 14th)
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