How a Couple’s Quest to Cure Cancer Led to the West’s First Covid-19 Vaccine

Vaccine is one of the fastest developed ever, but it was also 30 years in the making, starting with two Turkish-born scientists in a small German town

MAINZ, Germany—The story of the first Covid-19 vaccine to be authorized in the West began 30 years ago in rural Germany when two young physicians, the children of Turkish migrants and freshly in love, pledged to invent a new treatment for cancer.

It has taken 10 months for Germany’s BioNTech SE BNTX +5.10% and its U.S. partner, Pfizer Inc., PFE +3.50% to develop the vaccine that was granted emergency-use authorization in the U.K. on Wednesday—beating the previous Western record for a vaccine by more than three years.

Yet, for BioNTech’s founders, Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, the husband-and-wife team behind the successful endeavor, it was the outcome of three decades of work, starting long before the coronavirus first appeared in humans last winter.

When the pandemic broke out, Dr. Sahin had spent years studying mRNA, genetic instructions that can be delivered into the body to help it defend itself against viruses and other threats. In January, days before the illness was first diagnosed in Europe, he used this knowledge to design a version of the vaccine on his home computer.

“The success of Ugur and Özlem is a fantastic combination of two people who complement each other,” said Rolf Zinkernagel, a Swiss Nobel Prize laureate who once employed Dr. Sahin in his Zurich lab. “He is an innovative scientist, and she is an amazing clinician with a great sense for running a business.”

Dr. Sahin was born in Iskenderun on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast in 1965. He moved to Germany four years later when his father was recruited to work at a Ford factory near Cologne as part of a policy to rebuild postwar Germany with foreign labor.

Dr. Türeci’s father, a surgeon, came to Germany around the same time to work at a Catholic hospital in the small town of Lastrup, where she grew up inspired by the nuns who tended to her father’s patients. After considering becoming a nun herself, she followed in her father’s footsteps.

Dr. Sahin and Dr. Türeci said their frustration as young physicians about the dearth of options faced by cancer patients for whom chemotherapy was no longer working had been the driving force behind their mRNA work.

When the two met at Homburg university hospital in the 1990s, “We realized that with standard therapy we would quickly come to a point where we didn’t have anything to offer to patients,” Dr. Türeci said. “It was a formative experience.”

The couple wrote their doctoral dissertations on experimental therapies. Christoph Huber, then head of the hematology and oncology department of the Johannes‐Gutenberg University in Mainz and now a BioNTech nonexecutive director, persuaded them to join his faculty. There they began researching new treatments based on programming the body’s own immune system to defeat cancer like an infectious disease.

In 2001, the couple set up their first company, Ganymed Pharmaceuticals GmbH, to develop an antibody treatment. Dr. Türeci was chief executive and Dr. Sahin was in charge of research.

“The motivation…was to bridge the gap from science to survival: In our research we saw solutions that we couldn’t bring to our patients’ hospital beds,” Dr. Türeci said.

One day in 2002, Dr. Sahin and Dr. Türeci left their laboratory around lunchtime and headed to the registry office, where they got married before donning back their lab coats and returning to work.

The earliest and most important backers of the couple were Andreas and Thomas Strüngmann, twin brothers and billionaire investors who have poured more than 200 million euros, equivalent to $241 million, in the couple’s enterprises since 2001.

“Ugur is the visionary who shows us the future, and Özlem then tells us how to get there,” said Helmut Jeggle, BioNTech supervisory board chairman and manager of the Strüngmann family office. The brothers, he said, were happy to give the two scientists broad strategic leeway.

In 2008, Drs. Sahin and Türeci founded BioNTech to expand their research from antibody treatments into mRNA. Since Ganymed was sold for $1.4 billion in 2016 and the couple reinvested the proceeds into their new venture, BioNTech has been their sole focus.

All executive directors at BioNTech are scientists, including the finance and sales chiefs. The CEO retains his professorship at the local university, where he trains Ph.D. candidates, sometimes with an eye on recruitment.

When talking about his work, Dr. Sahin, who wears a Turkish amulet known as a nazar around his neck, often reaches for the blackboard to sketch formulas.

The BioNTech team, half of them women, includes scientists with 60 nationalities, including authorities in the mRNA field such as Katalin Kariko, a biochemistry professor at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

“Most biotech CEOs are salesmen, but Ugur is a scientist who convinced me because the science is good here,” said Prof. Kariko, who is Hungarian. “There is no blueprint for our products, no one has ever done it before.”

On Jan. 25, a Saturday, after reading a study he said convinced him that the obscure disease in China would soon engulf the globe, Dr. Sahin set to work on his computer, designing the template for 10 possible coronavirus vaccines, one of which would become BNT162b2, the vaccine authorized in the U.K. on Wednesday.

Later that day, he told Mr. Jeggle that BioNTech would refocus its work on combating a virus that didn’t yet have a name and hadn’t yet been diagnosed in Europe.

“I was surprised, to say the least,” said Mr. Jeggle, who has been working with Dr. Sahin since 2001. “We didn’t have much free capital, and we were tied up with our cancer research.”

Dr. Sahin cited the Hong Kong flu of 1968-69 that claimed as many as four million lives. After two hours, Mr. Jeggle conceded.

The following Monday, Dr. Sahin reorganized his staff into seven-day shifts, asked key workers to cancel their holidays and stop using public transport. Lightspeed Project, as he dubbed the effort, would develop a vaccine in months rather than years, as had so far been the case.

In February, Dr. Sahin was observing the effect of the jab in a microscope. He took a selfie with two employees present. “I think this is the birth of our vaccine candidate,” he declared.

BioNTech had been working with Pfizer to develop a flu vaccine based on the mRNA technology. So when Dr. Sahin needed a partner to organize clinical trials across continents, manufacture the product globally and help distribute it in the U.S. and Europe, he knew whom to turn to. In March, the two companies signed a cooperation deal, and in April, the first human trials began.

Later, BioNTech acquired a U.S. company and a large pharmaceutical factory in Germany to scale up production pending authorization—a high-risk approach should the shot fail.

Morgan Stanley estimated that the vaccine could bring Pfizer and BioNTech more than $13 billion in revenue. Any proceeds will be reinvested, Dr. Sahin said. His main focus hasn’t changed: to bring mRNA-based and other innovative cancer treatments, 11 of which are in clinical trials, to market.

Many scientists are still skeptical this can be done. Thomas C. Roberts, a senior postdoctoral scientist specializing in mRNA from the University of Oxford, said the vaccine results were exciting but the application of mRNA beyond the jab would face key challenges.

Back in Mainz, Dr. Sahin disagrees, saying the vaccine’s authorization would validate his technology and “usher in a whole new category of medicines.”

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