The scientist who won the race to deliver the first widely used coronavirus vaccine says people can rest assured the shots are safe, and the technology behind it will soon be used to fight another global scourge — cancer.
Ozlem Tureci, who founded the German company BioNTech with her husband Ugur Sahin, was working on a way to harness the body’s immune system to tackle tumors when they learned last year of an unknown virus infecting people in China.
Over breakfast, the couple decided to apply the technology they’d been researching for two decades to the new threat.
Britain authorized BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine for use in December, followed a week later by the United States. Dozens of other countries have followed suit and tens of millions of people worldwide have since received the shot developed together with U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
“It pays off to make bold decisions and to trust that if you have an extraordinary team, you will be able to solve any problem and obstacle which comes your way in real time,” Tureci told The Associated Press in an interview.
As BioNTech’s profile has grown during the pandemic, so has its value, adding much-needed funds the company will be able to use to pursue its original goal of developing a new tool against cancer.
The vaccine made by BioNTech-Pfizer and U.S. rival Moderna uses messenger RNA, or mRNA, to carry instructions into the human body for making proteins that prime it to attack a specific virus. The same principle can be applied to get the immune system to take on tumors.
“We have several different cancer vaccines based on mRNA,” said Tureci.
Asked when such a therapy might be available, Tureci said “that’s very difficult to predict in innovative development. But we expect that within only a couple of years, we will also have our vaccines (against) cancer at a place where we can offer them to people.”