Prof Doris Schroeder, UCLan Cyprus
A senior friend of mine, who hosts academics at an elite college for short stays, once told me something surprising. She said that Nobel Laureates are the easiest to deal with on their scholarly visits. The ones she had met, she said, had all been respectful, polite and humble. It is the lower ranks who are often demanding, unpleasant and rude.
In 2023, the Nobel Prize for Medicine went to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman. They made it possible for scientists to modify mRNA in such a way that it can be used to develop lifesaving vaccines.
According to the New York Times, Dr Karikó never earned more than US $60,000 a year, her grant applications were mostly rejected, and her fragile academic career required moving labs regularly. She had come to the US from her native Hungary with her husband and daughter and no more than a thousand dollars. Aged 58, she was forced to retire from her US university, without a team or professorship.
Enter Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin from BioNTech. Dr Türeci and Dr Şahin grew up in Germany as the children of Turkish migrants. Şahin’s father worked for Ford in Cologne and his son was the first migrant child (Gastarbeiterkind) who completed his Abitur (A-levels or high school diploma equivalent) at a Cologne grammar school. Türeci’s father was an all-round doctor in rural Germany, who was accompanied by his daughter from an early age. As Türeci recalls:
“My father was the only doctor in a local hospital… where nuns worked. He was the only man, the only doctor and he was Turkish and Muslim.”
Türeci watched her first operation aged six.
In 2008, Türeci, Şahin, and Christian Huber founded BioNTech, a company whose mission is to “translate science into survival by combining fundamental research and operational excellence.”
Karikó met Uğur Şahin and other BioNTech employees in Europe in 2013. Karikó recalled:
“This was the first time in my life that I didn’t have to explain that RNA is good, because all of the people who were there, were believers.”
When other academics take early retirement and focus on hobbies, she started an intercontinental commute. For nine years, she travelled to Germany.
“I did all these experiments actually, with my own hands, I was 58 years old, I was still culturing plasmids and feeding cells”.
Under the leadership of Türeci and Şahin and using the technology for which Karikó and Weissman received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2023, the BioNTech team (with Pfizer) managed to develop, clinically test and mass-produce an effective vaccine against COVID-19 in less than 10 months. They did so without skipping any phases in clinical trials and whilst adhering to standard ethics procedures (watch out for a PREPARED publication detailing how this was done in 2024).
Photo by Pixabay
When the news was published that the BioNTech/Pfizer COVID-vaccine, which was master-minded by Türeci and Şahin, offered powerful immunity to COVID-19, Karikó turned to her husband, according to the New York Times, and said: “Oh, it works, I thought so.”
Due to Karikó and Weissman’s groundbreaking findings on how mRNA can interact with human immune systems, other mRNA-based vaccines for communicable diseases are in development. For influenza, shingles, HIV, malaria, rabies, tuberculosis and zika clinical studies are at least in Phase I, some in Phase II and this does not even account for the possibilities of the use of mRNA technologies to fight cancer.
A team involving Türeci, Şahin and Karikó won the global race to find a COVID-19 vaccine. Yet, if any of the three ever visited an elite college for a scholarly stay, I suspect that they would be respectful, polite and humble. They are also an inspiration to the world of science.