Written: October 2022
Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci are the first Germans with Turkish roots among Germany’s 100 wealthiest people. The two billionaires are said to live modestly. I predict they will become far more wealthy. Uğur and his wife Türeci are both professors, scientists, doctors, oncologists, immunologists, and several other specialties most of us never heard of. In 2001, while continuing to teach at the University of Mainz, Şahin began to engage in entrepreneurial activities, co-founding two pharmaceutical companies, in 2001 and 2008, with his partner and spouse Özlem Türeci. The second of these companies, BioNTech, together with Pfizer Inc., developed one of the highly successful mRNA vaccines used to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Şahin is the Chief Executive Officer of BioNTech and Türeci is the Chief Medical Officer. Prior to the pandemic the duo had been working on personalized cancer immunotherapy. They are bullish. Professor Türeci told BBC News, “We feel that a cure for cancer or to changing cancer patients’ lives is in our grasp”, and Professor Şahin said he thought cancer vaccines could be widely available “before 2030.”
Scientists have been trying to develop a cancer vaccine for decades but the breakthroughs from Project Warp Speed may accelerate progress. BioNtech was working on a cancer vaccine when the pandemic became the top priority. A lot was learned and now that learning is fueling cancer vaccine research again.
One approach in the research is to teach the immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells. Just like the covid antigens were able to detect and fight the covid virus, cancer antigens can potentially distinguish cancer cells from normal cells. Ideally the research might enable prevention of cancer from growing in the first place.
There will be a difference between covid and cancer vaccines. The covid vaccines are one size fits all. A cancer vaccine is likely to be unique to each patient. However, with the advances in supercomputing and cloud storage, this should not be a problem.
Another approach is the development of vaccines designed to treat people who already have cancer. The FDA has approved a therapeutic cancer vaccine called Provenge for people with advanced prostate cancer. Provenge is an immunotherapy treatment which utilizes the power of the patient’s own immune system to identify and target prostate cancer cells.
The BioNtech website says, “From the very beginning, our focus has always been on exploiting the full potential of the body’s immune system to successfully help address cancer and infectious diseases.” BioNtech is not alone. Pharmaceutical companies see cancer treatment as a major opportunity for billions in revenue. As of 2020, there were more than 1,300 medicines and vaccines for various cancers under development by innovative biopharmaceutical research. I am optimistic.
Epilogue: The pharmaceutical industry is profitable, as it should be. It does great things. It has extended our life expectancy. But, how profitable should it be? For pharmaceutical companies, the median gross profit margin was 76.5%, the median earnings before taxes was 29.4%, and the median net income margin was 13.8%. These numbers far exceed other S&P 500 companies. As I wrote in Health Attitude: Unraveling and Solving the Complexities of Healthcare in 2015, Medicare should be allowed to negotiate the price of drugs. This is a no-brainer. The Inflation Reduction Act identifies just 10 Part D drugs for 2026, another 15 Part D drugs for 2027, another 15 Part D and Part B drugs for 2028, and another 20 Part D and Part B drugs for 2029 and later years. It is clear from the details the pharma lobby had a strong hand in writing the provisions. Political support came from politicians who get millions of donations to their reelection campaign funds from the lobby. Any business-minded person working on behalf of the taxpayers, not the politicians, would simplify the provisions. All of the 20,000+ FDA-approved drugs beginning in 2023. If the pharmaceutical industry feels the pinch, they can gain billions by stopping the ridiculous carpet bombing of TV ads we do not need.