They Kept Their Passion Fresh
How Nuance Led the Way to a Vaccine
Surely, neither Dr. Ugur Sahin nor Dr. Ozlem Tureci could have foreseen when they got married, how one day they would offer great hope to the world. I couldn’t help but think of them after receiving my second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine while sitting in a sea of fold-out chairs at Indiana University’s Assembly Hall. The vaccine they helped create was now coursing through my body, providing added protection against a disease that has caused so much devastation and heartache around the world.
Much has been written about how quickly this vaccine came into being, yet sadly little has been mentioned of the grit needed to make it happen. You see, Drs. Sahin and Tureci’s foundational work began nearly 30 years ago long before COVID became a household word. As far back as the 1990s, Dr. Sahin already had the idea of using the mRNA (Messenger RNA) technology that would fuel the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. At that time, however, he was aiming to use it to protect against cancer and other illnesses. It was an idea that would seem far-fetched and impossible to many, in part, due to the fragile nature of mRNA. However, both he and his future wife, Dr. Tureci, would go on to establish their first company, Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, in 2001 to pursue the use of this technology in cancer treatments. In doing so, the doctors managed to convert their interest in medicine into a very successful business and would go on to become pioneers in the field of medicine.
Their individual interests in medicine began differently. For Dr. Tureci, her interest was inspired by her father’s living example as a surgeon. Dr. Sahin’s desire to practice medicine, however, came through reading. After discovering their interest, they then proceeded to develop it in medical school before taking the unconventional step of establishing their own company. Their passion for making mRNA work in cancer treatments even prompted them to visit their company laboratory twice on their wedding day in 2002. Talk about dedication!
They went on to found BioNTech in 2008. While the coronavirus was still in its early stages one year ago, the good doctors were working on mRNA vaccines against the common flu, tuberculosis, and cancer. Upon reading about COVID-19, they then encouraged their company to pivot towards producing a COVID-19 vaccine. Therefore, this mRNA technology new to the world and used in a vaccine for the first time wasn’t new to them.
In their success, you see persistence and passion dedicated over many years towards a goal. You will also notice one of the necessary ingredients in keeping that passion burning, deviant nuances. This term (created playfully by the author), refers to the small deviations one makes to pursue their passion and expertise further. They worked for many years on developing mRNA technology in medicine, but they also began looking at it from a business side, keeping their perspective fresh. Furthermore, they took their technology and refined it, changing it up to meet various needs in making monoclonal antibodies at Ganymed to the multiple vaccines at BioNTech. These nuances kept their passion from growing stale.
Had they not pushed the frontiers of newness in so many ways, it is likely that Dr. Sahin and Dr. Tureci would not have made their contribution to the fight against COVID-19. Because of their grit, more and more people each day are taking their first fully vaccinated steps towards the end of this pandemic.
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