They have become world famous and rich with the Corona vaccine, but they are not thinking of quitting: The founders of the vaccine manufacturer Biontech want to use the billions in profits from the Covid 19 vaccine to advance the development of novel treatments against cancer and even aging. "Our purpose in life is to be useful," says Özlem Türeci in an interview with the star. "If we look at what we want to contribute to, not much has been achieved."
Co-founder Uğur Şahin arrives at the company headquarters in Mainz with a bicycle helmet in his hand. The couple appear modest. Her everyday life has changed little since the success of the corona vaccine, "apart from the fact that we are recognized in the supermarket and greeted nicely," says Türeci. To this day, the couple does not own a car or a television. Şahin watches his beloved superhero films on his laptop, "sometimes even on his smartphone".
Most of the proceeds from the vaccine will be used to expand the company. The company is growing rapidly. Several new laboratory or production buildings are under construction or in planning, and the number of employees has doubled to more than 3,000 within two years. "For us, work is still the focus, it dictates every day," says Türeci.
For the doctor couple, the success of the vaccine against the corona virus was no more than a stage victory. They founded Biontech in 2008 with the aim of developing new therapies against cancer. On the one hand, it is about detecting and treating cancer earlier, Türeci explains. On the other hand, they aimed to "make advanced cancer a chronic disease that you can live with".
Türeci and Şahin rely, among other things, on mRNA technology, which was also used for the corona vaccine. For their cancer drugs, they adapt the mRNA individually to the tumor of the cancer patient. The aim is to get their bodies to produce targeted antibodies and fight cancer.
Available now: The seven-part podcast "A new medicine - the Biontech story" offers an exclusive insight into the work of Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci and tells how the previously largely unknown start-up wrote medical history. You can find the first four episodes of "RTL Musik" here. A new episode appears every Thursday on other podcast platforms.
The two doctors are convinced: in 15 years, more than 30 percent of all newly approved drugs will be based on mRNA technology - including anti-cancer drugs. Several of them are already in patient studies. At the same time, the oncologist Türeci puts the brakes on exaggerated expectations: "The idea that you have a pill and it cures all types of cancer immediately, that won't happen."
Further in the future are drugs that can delay or even reverse aging. Research is being carried out in many laboratories around the world, including in financially strong California. Biontech has also entered this field with a subsidiary called Resano. First of all, it is about the more down-to-earth goal of counteracting acute clinical pictures that can lead to a loss of function in an organ. For example, people who have had a heart attack are often no longer able to perform as well as before, explains Şahin. "We are investigating whether we can bring the heart back closer to its pre-infarction state, for example by reducing the formation of scar tissue.
However, he has long been thinking one step ahead: the molecule mRNA can also be used to rejuvenate cells. In principle, a heart muscle cell and thus old tissue can be replaced from a skin cell. Ugur Şahin does not dare to predict when this technology could be used in humans. "In medicine, it's easy to predict what will happen in the next ten years," he says. "But one often underestimates what is possible in the next 30 years."