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Lead Scientist on the Coronavirus Vaccine Targeting Cancer Next

By Jada Harrison, Staff Writer

Ozlem Tureci, a German scientist who was a key developer in the coronavirus vaccine, is developing a technology that will be effective in targeting cancer tumors. Tureci, who is a co-founder alongside her husband of the company BioNTech, was developing a new technology that will help control the body’s immune system in order to fight against tumors last year, before the coronavirus developed a worldwide pandemic. 

This development for cancer was halted, and the company decided to put their focus over that time on the virus. BioNTech was able to create a vaccine that will use messenger RNA that will instruct the human body to create a protein that will attack a specific virus, the same system would be used on tumors.

“It pays off to make bold decisions and to trust that if you have an extraordinary team, you will be able to solve any problem and obstacle which comes your way in real time,” Tureci told The Associated Press in an interview.

Tureci says that the vaccine will take a few years to develop, and the toughest challenge of getting a vaccine approved is orchestrating large scale clinical trials that will supersede multiple regions. 

Biology professor Dr. Theodore Brummel believes while the vaccine sounds promising, but won’t be the complete answer to defeating cancer.

“Using vaccines in one case you are training the body to respond to a foreign entity and in the other you are trying to train the body to respond to abnormal cells,” Brummel said. “However, I do believe it is likely that vaccines will be used successfully to treat many cancers, but I am highly doubtful that we will be able to eradicate cancer by this approach as we did for some infectious diseases, such as polio and smallpox.”

In regards to availability and accessibility, Brummel believes in universal reception.

“If this approach works I think that many of the vaccines will be very widely available as much of the cost of the vaccine is associated with its development, and thus when widely used they become relatively inexpensive,” Brummel said. “I think it would almost certainly be more cost effective than many of the currently used treatments.” 

BioNTech is a small company that has employees in 60 different countries. The company’s capital and attention has increased significantly since the pandemic, which has given the company the ability to fund the progress of their cancer vaccine research. 

Junior nursing major Jahaila Harley was surprised to hear about a cancer vaccine.

“I never heard about this new development, I don’t know much about cancer, but I do know that cancer is completely different from a virus,” she said. “I believe scientists know what they’re doing and there will be plenty of trials for it so I’m hopeful that it can help such a large scale disease.” 

Dr. Brummel also believes that completely eliminating cancer may not be as easy as it sounds.

“I would like to emphasize that cancer is not a disease in the way that COVID is, but rather it is more like a collection of different genetic abnormalities that result in multiple very different diseases that share many features,” he said. “We have been successfully improving the standard of care for cancer for many decades and will continue to do so.  However, Cancer is a very challenging problem and it is very difficult to predict which excellent ideas for combating it will be most effective.“

On March 18, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier awarded Tureci and her husband the Order of Merit, one of Germany’’s highest decorations.

 “You began with a drug to treat cancer in a single individual, and today we have a vaccine for all of humanity,” Steinmeier told the couple at the ceremony. 

Tureci insists that it wouldn’t have been possible without the effort and help of her team. “It’s about the effort of many: our team at BioNTech, all the partners who were involved, also governments, regulatory authorities, which worked together with a sense of urgency,” Tureci said. “The way we see it, this is an acknowledgement of this effort and also a celebration of science.”

As for now, Tureci says that her husband and team are focusing on the ongoing pandemic, ensuring that every government entity that has ordered vaccines are provided with them and also ensuring BioNTech stays on top of any new mutations to coronavirus. 

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