The co-creator of the COVID-19 vaccine says they are now working on a shot to treat cancer

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The co-creator of the COVID-19 vaccine that’s provided a pathway to normalcy after a year of devastation says that the same technology will soon be used to fight cancer.

In January 2020, Ozlem Tureci, co-founder of the German company BioNTech with her husband, Ugur Sahin, were working on a way to use the body’s immune system to tackle cancerous tumors when they heard about a mysterious virus that originated in China.

The couple quickly decided to switch the focus of their project to confronting the COVID-19 virus which quickly spread worldwide.

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In just 11 months, BioNTech, in partnership with U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, had the vaccine approved for use in Britain, with the U.S. following shortly after.


“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.

The vaccines made by BioNTech as well as its U.S.-rival, Moderna, use messenger RNA, or mRNA, to carry instructions into the body to make proteins that prime it to attack a specific virus. The company has been using the same technology to create a vaccine that fights tumors.

“We have several different cancer vaccines based on mRNA,” said Tureci

blankvia BioNTech

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The cancer treatment works a bit differently than the COVID-19 vaccine. The COVID-19 vaccine is made to prevent people from catching the virus, the cancer vaccines are targeted to both the individual and their tumor.

For cancer, the mRNA is used to deliver protein codes designed to attack a specific tumor in the body. The cells then produce proteins that train the system to guard off any occurrences of the cancer.

Asked when a breakthrough treatment for cancer may be available for the general public, Tureci predicts sometime in the near future. She says it’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.”

In 2017, the company reported that an immunotherapy it created to fight melanoma was successful in the 13 people that were treated with its vaccine. After going through the therapy all participants showed elevated immunity against the mutated bits of their tumors.

On Friday, German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier awarded the couple the Order of Merit, one of the country’s highest decorations. The ceremony was also attended by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“You began with a drug to treat cancer in a single individual,” Steinmeier told the couple. “And today we have a vaccine for all of humanity.”

Tureci says that receiving the award is “indeed an honor” but it never would have been possible without the work of many.

“It’s about the effort of many: our team at BioNTech, all the partners who were involved, also governments, regulatory authorities, which worked together with a sense of urgency,” Tureci said. “The way we see it, this is an acknowledgment of this effort and also a celebration of science.”

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