Mustafa Science and Technology Foundation (MSTF) and BioNTech jointly hold a webinar on Prof. Ugur Sahin's latest achievements; focusing on mRNA -based vaccines, especially COVID-19

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Mustafa Science and Technology Foundation and BioNTech jointly held a webinar on Prof. Ugur Sahin's latest achievements; focusing on  mRNA -based vaccines, especially COVID-19 on 17th August 2021. Prof. Shahin is the main scientist who developed the “Pfizer-BioNTech” vaccine for COVID-19. From ECOSF, President Prof. Manzoor Hussain Soomro participated in the event.  Prof. Ugur Sahin, a 2019 Mustafa Prize laureate and the developer of the first mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccine, made a presentation and answered to questions from the audience.

Prof. Sahin first gave a general account of mRNA vaccines and principles of developing mRNA vaccines. Since years ago, Prof. Sahin has been working on developing mRNA-based vaccines for cancer patients, along with his team. They have reached “promising, encouraging results in disease control” regarding the actual use of this approach in cancer patients, starting from 2014. He said “For years, we have tried to optimize our mRNA approach.”

Prof. Sahin stated that his company, BioNTech, is primarily focused on cancer vaccine development, “but when we were hit by Covid-19 outbreak in China, we decided to use our platform to develop a vaccine for it.”

Just as in cancer vaccine development we were trying to identify tumor mutations, we went through the identification of the virus genetic sequence in developing Covid-19 vaccine. The only chief difference between their cancer vaccine and their Covid-19 vaccine, Prof. Sahin remarked, is that “in case of infectious disease vaccine, we use nucleoside-modified mRNA which improves the tolerability of the vaccine.” What is important to be regarded for virus variants, according to Prof. Sahin, is that there are 2 layers of protection against the virus.

The first layer is neutralizing antibody which inhibit the uptake of the virus—the entry of virus into the cells, but some viruses will escape it. The second layer of protection is T cells. “The first layer is prone to the escape of the virus, but for the virus it is much more difficult to escape from T cells,” Prof. Sahin noted, adding that “This type of T cell response is believed to protect us against variants, because variants might manage to escape antibody responses, but they have to deal with T cell responses.” “This is a protective layer not against infection, but against severe disease,” he continued.

Asked whether they are working on the issue of temperature in which this vaccine can be kept, Sahin replied: “When we first developed our vaccine, we had only data for storing mRNA vaccine at minus 80. We have now the data which allows us to keep the vaccine at 2-8°C for 4 weeks.” Sahin stated that even though high antibody loss was observed in the response of vaccinated subjects to some variants of the virus, “we still observed a high real-world efficacy of our vaccine against B.1.1.7 (Alpha) and B.1.351 (Beta) variants, based on a study in Qatar.”

Studies show that after about 6 months of getting two shots of the vaccine, the protection against disease declines, but still there is a protection against severe disease “for more than 90%,” Sahin highlighted. We have investigated that boosting the subjects who have already received two vaccine shots, increases the antibody level enormously. “So we believe that messenger RNA approach is suitable for boosting antibody,” he said.

Asked about those who can receive mRNA vaccine booster shot, Sahin highlighted that based on the studies conducted so far, “mRNA vaccine is a suitable booster” whether the recipient has previously been infected with Covid-19, and whether they have received other types of vaccine. Sahin continued: “Delta variant is prevented by our vaccine for about 85% to 90% based on a study from the UK, but we need to be aware that when antibody response declines, the protection declines too. So it is important to keep the antibody level high for prevention of infection.” Asked if he is now pursuing developing variant-specific vaccines for Covid-19, Sahin answered: “Yes, we have already started the clinical trial for Beta variant. We are now going to start a trial against the Delta variant in a few weeks.”

Noting that their vaccine is “the fastest vaccine developed in the history of medicine,” Sahin acknowledged the efforts of his team and his partners consisting of hundreds of people. Ugur Sahin was awarded the 2019 Mustafa Prize in Life & Medical Science and Technology for his achievements in “Development and Clinical Testing of mRNA-based Cancer Vaccines that are Tailored to the Mutation Profile of a Cancer Patient.”

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