mRNA: Much More Than a Vaccine

By Shlomo Maital  

   Özlem Türeci is a 54-year-old German physician, scientist and entrepreneur, born to Turkish parents who emigrated.  She is married to Uğur Şahin, 57, a German oncologist and immunologist, who emigrated to Germany with his parents when he was four years old.  He is the CEO of BioNTech, which helped develop one of the major vaccines against COVID-19 – the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.  Türeci and Şahin founded BioNTech together.

    Writing in The Economist (“The World Ahead”), the couple explain the enormous benefits mRNA technology will provide in coming years.  Here are excerpts:

  “The rapid development of multiple covid-19 vaccines is an unprecedented achievement in drug development that has offered a way out of the pandemic. But there is more good news to come. The role of vaccines based on messenger RNA (mRNA) technology in this success heralds a new era in the development of therapies for other diseases.

   The mRNA breakthrough was made possible by scientific co-operation over three decades that helped transform a promising concept into a highly potent and versatile biopharmaceutical platform. We believe that in 15 years, one-third of all newly approved drugs will be based on mRNA.

     Rather than relying on complex and time-consuming fermentation processes to produce drugs, mRNA therapies instead turn the recipient’s own cells into drug factories. Each mRNA molecule is a recipe that instructs the cells to manufacture a specific desired protein. Our covid-19 vaccine prompts cells to manufacture the “spike” protein found in the coronavirus’s outer coating, thus priming the immune system so that it can subsequently recognise and fend off the virus.

    This technology is a turning-point in the pharmaceutical industry, comparable to the inauguration of recombinant dna technology (allowing the production of human-protein drugs such as insulin), or monoclonal antibodies in laboratory fermenters, more than 40 years ago. The roll-out of this concept into readily available drugs promises to disrupt and transform the industry—and global health.

    We believe that in 15 years, one-third of all newly approved drugs will be based on mRNA

    The development of covid-19 vaccines based on mRNA has proved the efficacy and safety of this approach in preventing infectious diseases. The fact that a safe and effective vaccine could be developed in less than 12 months, in the midst of a pandemic, and then manufactured at scale, suggests that mRNA vaccines will play an important role in future pandemic-preparedness programmes, which are high on governments’ agendas.

    It also paves the way for mRNA vaccines to be deployed against other infectious diseases. Many existing vaccines for such diseases might be reformulated using mRNA, making them more efficient. We believe that the versatility of mRNA technology offers opportunities to go further, and to combat currently undefeated diseases.

   At BioNTech, we are now going beyond covid-19 and investing in mRNA-vaccine programmes to deal with diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, which are still responsible for many deaths in lower-income countries. The prospect of being able to bring mRNA technology to bear is creating a spirit of optimism in the fight against these human scourges.

    The first mRNA-vaccine candidates for these diseases are expected to enter clinical trials in 2022 and 2023.”