When Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci first met, they bonded over plans to cure cancer, as one does.
Now that they’re married and cofounders of Germany’s BioNTech, cancer is unfortunately still incurable (for now), but their research and incredible love story paved the way for a coronavirus vaccine instead.
Love at first test tube
Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci were both born in Turkey, but they met in the small Turkish town of Homburg in the 1990s, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The two young physicists were shocked at how few options for treatment cancer patients currently have, so they made it their life goal to cure the disease.
In 2001, they started their first company, Ganymed Pharmaceuticals GmbH, to work on antibody treatments for cancer.
Meanwhile, the couple’s romance continued to evolve, but they wouldn’t let it get in the way of their work. In fact, when they got married in 2002, they left the lab in the middle of the day to tie the knot and came right back to work.
“The success of Ugur and Özlem is a fantastic combination of two people who complement each other… He is an innovative scientist, and she is an amazing clinician with a great sense for running a business.”Rolf Zinkernagel, a Swiss Nobel Prize Laureate, told The WSJ.
A COVID vaccine is born
In 2008, Sahin and Türeci founded a new biotechnology company, BioNTech SE, with plans to focus on an exciting technology called mRNA. Now ubiquitous, mRNA sends genetic instructions into the body to help it fight off viruses.
“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.
In January, Sahin read a study that said the coronavirus found in China would soon become a global pandemic. Later that day, he decided to divert focus from using mRNA for cancer towards finding a vaccine for the new coronavirus, COVID-19.
“I was surprised, to say the least,” Jeggle told The WSJ. “We didn’t have much free capital, and we were tied up with our cancer research.”
Sahin pleaded with Jeggle, telling him that he expected this coronavirus could be similar to the Hong Kong flu of 1968-69, which killed up to four million people. Two hours later, Jeggle was convinced.
They put their mind to curing coronavirus
BioNTech ramped up work. Employees were told to work seven days a week and skip holidays.
Just a month later, Sahin was observing the impacts of mRNA in the lab and took a selfie with two of his scientists. “I think this is the birth of our vaccine candidate,” he said.
BioNTech had already been working with US-based Pfizer on a flu vaccine for mRNA technology, so they were able to quickly transition into a working relationship for a coronavirus vaccine.
In April, the first human trials began and the vaccine, which was the brainchild of a couple in love, became the fastest vaccine to earn approval in the West.
This week, vaccinations began in the UK and Morgan Stanley estimated that the vaccine could bring Pfizer and BioNTech more than $13 billion in revenue.
But Sahin and Türeci’s work isn’t finished. They still plan to use mRNA for cancer treatments.
Many scientists are skeptical mRNA can be used to treat cancer, but 11 clinical trials are currently underway and Sahin says the coronavirus vaccine will “usher in a whole new category of medicines.”
The power of shared dreams
When we talk about saving the world as children, it can come off as idealistic and far-fetched. It must have seemed that way when Sahin and Türeci talked about curing cancer back when they were in university.
But if you commit to accomplishing your dreams, you can move mountains with the one you love by your side. Especially with a shared vision for the type of world you want to create.
When you come up with shared goals in a relationship, it can not only deepen your connection and help you grow and evolve as a couple, but also fuel your ambitions and turn big dreams into a reality.
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