Özlem Türeci (Ozlem Tureci) is is a German physician, scientist and entrepreneur. In 2008, she co-founded the biotechnology company BioNTech, which in 2020 developed the first messenger RNA-based vaccine approved for use against COVID-19. Türeci has served as BioNTech's chief medical officer since 2018. Previously, she co-founded Ganymed Pharmaceuticals in 2001 and served as CEO until the company was acquired by Astellas Pharma in 2016. Earlier, Türeci worked primarily in research and teaching. She is also a Privatdozentin at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. Türeci and her spouse, Uğur Şahin, have won a number of awards, and in 2020, became the first Turkish German on the list of Germany's top 100 wealthiest people.
Personal life and education
Born in Lastrup, West Germany in 1967, Türeci is the daughter of Turkish immigrants. Her mother was a biologist. Her father, a surgeon, was from Istanbul and worked at the Catholic hospital St. Elisabeth-Stift in Lastrup in the district of Cloppenburg. She attended, among others, the Städtisches Gymnasium in Bad Driburg and the Werner-von-Siemens-Gymnasium in Bad Harzburg. As a child, she was strongly inspired by the nuns who worked to help people at the hospital her father worked at.
She studied medicine at Saarland University in Homburg and received her doctorate from the Medical Faculty of Saarland in 1992. She was a Heisenberg fellow of the German Research Foundation. Her research focused on the identification and characterization of tumor-specific molecules and the development of immunotherapies against cancer. In 2002, she completed her habilitation qualification at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz in the field of molecular medicine.
While completing her final year of studies, Türeci met her future husband, Uğur Şahin, who was working at Saarland University Hospital in Homburg. They discovered that they shared an interest in using the body's immune system to fight cancer. The couple married in 2002 and had a daughter four years later. Although Türeci and her husband became billionaires as a result of their business interests, the family continues to live modestly.
University Medicine Mainz
Türeci was a staff member of the University Medical Center Mainz in the special research area of immunology. Since 2002, she has been a private lecturer there in the field of cancer immunotherapy. Together with her husband and their mentor, the immunologist Christoph Huber, she developed the concept of a "translational institute", which was realized in 2001 with the foundation of TRON, short for "translational oncology." This is a biopharmaceutical research institute that develops new diagnostics and drugs for the therapy of cancer and other diseases with high unmet medical needs. Two companies later founded by Türeci and her husband are spin-offs of work done at the university in Mainz.
In 2001, Türeci and her future husband founded the company Ganymed Pharmaceuticals. This company focused on a new class of cancer drugs called ideal monoclonal antibodies and developed zolbetuximab, which is used to treat esophageal and gastric cancer. She was chief scientific officer (CSO) from 2001 to 2008 and led the company from 2008 to 2016 in the role of Chief Executive Officer (CEO). In 2016, the company was sold to Astellas Pharma for $1.4 billion and is now a subsidiary of that company.
In 2008, Türeci, her husband, and Christoph Huber founded the Mainz-based biotechnology company BioNTech, choosing a name derived from Biopharmaceutical New Technologies. Türeci has been Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of the company since 2018. As CMO, she is primarily responsible for Clinical Research and Development. From 2009 to 2018, she served as chair of the company's scientific advisory board. Originally, the company focused on the development and manufacturing of active immunotherapies based on Messenger RNA (mRNA) and other technologies for a patient-specific approach to the treatment of cancer and other serious diseases. Along with researchers from TRON, they hired Katalin Karikó, who had developed a way to avoid triggering an inflammatory reaction when injecting an mRNA drug.
Project Lightspeed - Development of Covid-19 vaccine
In January 2020, Türeci's husband read an article in The Lancet medical journal regarding a novel coronavirus later named COVID-19. Concerned that a pandemic could be coming, the couple decided to apply the mRNA vaccine technology they had been researching for two decades to developing a vaccine against the disease, which at the time was spreading in China.
They convinced the American pharmaceutical company Pfizer, with whom they had previously begun working on an influenza vaccine, to help with development and distribution costs. By March 2020, they had five vaccine candidates ready to test in humans, and by November 2020, results indicated that the vaccine was more than 90% effective. The following month, the vaccine was authorized for use in Britain and the United States, and the first patient was injected at a hospital in Coventry. As of February 2021, BioNTech was planning to produce 2 billion doses of their vaccine by the end of 2021.
Türeci was responsible for the clinical trials in the development of the vaccine called BNT162b2 (the Pfizer–BioNTech COVID‑19 vaccine, sold under the brand name Comirnaty). Türeci credits the rapid success of the project in part to international collaboration, including Pfizer and the Chinese firm Fosun Pharma. BioNTech itself has staff from 60 countries.
Türeci and her husband were named Financial Times People of the Year for 2020 based on their ability to produce a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 less than a year after the genetic sequence of the virus was released, an achievement cited as "one of the greatest medical breakthroughs of our time." They also appeared on the cover of the American news magazine Time in January 2021.
Using funds from the successful vaccine, BioNTech plans to pursue its original goal of creating an mRNA-based cancer vaccine; Türeci remarked in March 2021 that the company had several vaccines, with the expectation of offering them to patients within 2 years. Ideally, they will be able to design tailor-made therapies for individual patients. So far, they have treated over 440 patients with 17 types of tumors.
In addition, BioNTech is working on an mRNA vaccine to prevent malaria and investigating the production of vaccines in Africa.
Türeci has filed more than 80 international patent applications and published more than 110 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. She is internationally active as a lecturer.