Miracle in Mainz
April 5, 2021
In an otherwise bleak news landscape, a wonderful scientific transformation is underway that will extend lifespans and improve the quality of life on Earth. Within a decade or so, 100 years of age will become the new 60, thanks to the same breakthrough that has just given the world two unique COVID-19 vaccines just months after the pandemic’s outbreak.
Welcome to the mRNA revolution of 2020 -- 75 years after the antibiotic revolution in 1945 saved millions of lives, increased lifespans, and improved outcomes for diseases previously regarded as fatal. A Scottish physician-scientist named Alexander Fleming admitted he discovered penicillin by accident, but its widespread adoption led appropriately to his receiving Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine.
mRNA is depicted as a little workhorse on a cartoon unicycle and its initials stand for messenger ribonucleic acid. Without getting too technical, this molecule has been studied for decades but finally -- through the use of new digital technologies -- is able to trick our bodies into accepting snippets of genetic material that trigger an immune response to COVID-19 as well as a host of other diseases, notably cancers.
The revolution began after December 30, 2019, shortly before midnight, when the International Society for Infectious Diseases, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, posted an alarming report online. A number of people in Wuhan China, a city of more than 11 million people, had been diagnosed with “unexplained pneumonia” and it was unusually contagious.
Then on January 10, 2020, Chinese scientists posted online the virus’s genetic sequence, and the world’s two leading mRNA scientific teams -- one in Germany and another in Massachusetts -- jumped into action immediately. Both knew the mRNA platforms they had developed offered a solution to the pandemic and pivoted their operations to meet the challenge.
“We understood that this would become a pandemic,” said Dr. Ugur Sahin of Mainz Germany, founder of BioNTech with his physician-scientist wife Ozlem Tuereci. He is also a professor at Mainz University. “There are not too many companies on the planet which have the capacity and the competence to do it so fast. So it felt not like an opportunity, but a duty to do it because I realized we could be among the first coming up with a vaccine.”
BioNTech’s entire workforce immediately began work in a race to devise a vaccine. All holidays were suspended, the company’s “Project Lightspeed” began, and Dr. Sahin contracted with his long-time partner, gigantic Pfizer PLC, in the effort to eventually test and manufacture the product. Within weeks, BioNTech had created a vaccine for testing which eventually became the world’s first authorized mRNA vaccine.
The other company, Moderna in Cambridge, had also developed mRNA technologies. Both companies had recognized a 2005 discovery, published by University of Pennsylvania scientists Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman, that described how to turn mRNA into a customized, disease-fighting factory. The two invented a way to tweak the synthetic mRNA so it could sneak past the body’s defenses and trigger an immune response. BioNTech and Moderna both licensed this technology and aggressively invested in commercializing the findings. In 2013, Kariko became Senior Vice President at BioNTech.
Their corporate strategies varied. In Germany, BioNTech worked on ways to harness mRNA to the body’s immune system to tackle tumors. Along the way, it published 150 papers on its findings in international medical journals but its corporate culture remained modest as are its founders. Operations were tucked away in Mainz, a small Medieval city. Interestingly, another earth-shattering revolution took place there — the creation of the movable-type printing press by local resident Johannes Gutenberg in the early 1450s. The first books in the world were created in Mainz, including the Gutenberg Bible. Now BioNTech.
By contrast, Moderna was located in America’s crowded biotech hub, the Boston area, and its approach was “American entrepreneurial” with brash management that concentrated on research but also on promotion of its achievements and stock value. Unlike BioNTech, it kept its scientific findings secret.
Despite gaping cultural differences, the two enjoyed a huge advantage over all other vaccine manufacturers who used the traditional and time-consuming process of injecting an inactivated virus to produce an immune response. By contrast, BioNTech and Moderna were able to quickly design tiny snips of genetic code -- based on COVID’s genetic sequence -- that would stimulate a coronavirus immune response. Their chemical structures and methodology varied, but both vaccines worked with more than 90 percent effectiveness after two shots were administered a few weeks apart.
So far, BioNTech's partnership with Pfizer has outstripped Moderna’s in terms of distribution and reach. Pfizer, which splits costs and profit margins equally with BioNTech, expects $15 billion in sales in 2021 based on current deals. Pfizer says it can potentially deliver two billion doses this year. And its vaccine roll-out in Israel has also become a global test market that has demonstrated the vaccine’s effectiveness in all age groups. Besides delivering superior speed and success, mRNA vaccines will also be able to protect patients against COVID-19 variants and can be tweaked for future, even more dangerous, strains.
This marks the propitious beginning of the mRNA revolution. And BioNTech is well-advanced in plans to roll out cancer vaccines in a couple of years. In 2013, the firm began disclosing its ambition to transform the treatment of cancer and announced a series of eight partnerships with major drugmakers. "We have several different cancer vaccines based on mRNA," said Dr. Tureci. As for timing, she said "that'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."
Cancer ranks as the first or second leading cause of premature death, between the ages of 30 and 69 years of age, in 134 countries. Worse, estimates in developed countries are that one out of every two people will develop cancer.
BioNTech and Moderna have demonstrated the effectiveness and efficiency of mRNA in combating the world’s most dangerous pandemic to date. Now hundreds of teams, companies, and universities will intensify their mRNA research and help search for solutions to protect human beings from cancers, HIV, tuberculosis, rabies, malaria, new influenza, and the next pandemic.
The two German doctors are now billionaires many times over, but continue to live modestly in their small city of 217,000 people, where they have an apartment near their office and laboratory. BioNTech directly employs 1,800 people and has a market capitalization value of $27 billion, but they still commute to work by bicycle and remain dedicated to the cause of science and their oaths as physicians.
BioNTech’s website contains a wonderful mission statement by Dr. Sahit who pledges to fight the scourge of cancer globally: “We aspire to individualize cancer medicine. Imagine you could tailor-make a cancer therapy for each individual patient, based on the genetic features of the tumor, and provide it in a reproducible, timely, and cost-effective way. We aim to change the treatment paradigm for cancer patients worldwide.”
May the Miracle in Mainz continue.