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High honor for pioneers of cancer immunotherapy: Meyenburg Prize 2020/21

Meyenburg Prize 2020/21 goes to Katalin Karikó, Uǧur Șahin and Özlem Türeci

The Meyenburg Prize 2020/21, endowed with 100,000 €, goes to Katalin Karikó (University of Szeged and Pennsylvania), Özlem Türeci and Uǧur Șahin (BioNTech AG and Universitätsmedizin Mainz). The researchers receive the award for their outstanding contributions to the development of vaccines and immunotherapies against cancer. The prize will be awarded on March 21, 2023, at the annual symposium of the Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology (HI-TRON) Mainz.

"There are hardly any scientists in the world who have as much expertise in cancer immunotherapy as Özlem Türeci and Uǧur Șahin," said Stefan Fröhling, board member of the Meyenburg Foundation and managing director of the NCT Heidelberg, explaining the selection of the award winners. "Both are pioneers in the field of mRNA-based cancer vaccines. In turn, this technology was only made possible by the fundamental work of Katalin Karikó. The 2020/21 Meyenburg Prize recognizes the outstanding achievement of the three researchers that has the potential to significantly improve the survival of cancer patients in the future."

Özlem Türeci and Uǧur Șahin are developing different types of immunotherapies and are internationally recognized pioneers in the development of cancer vaccines. Vaccinating against cancer is a very different challenge than developing a vaccine against a virus. Viruses are fundamentally foreign to the human immune system. Tumor cells, however, which arise from normal tissue, carry only a few cancer-typical features that allow the immune system to distinguish them from a healthy cell. In decades of research, Türeci and Șahin have succeeded in identifying such features, which, moreover, are capable of activating the immune system.

The compelling idea behind the concept of mRNA-based cancer vaccines: Messenger RNA molecules (mRNA) enable the body to produce the tumor proteins itself, which stimulate the immune system to fight the cancer. The great advantage of this approach is that it makes it comparatively simple and fast to produce even highly individualized tumor vaccines. To this end, the tumor genome of individual patients is first searched for mutations that distinguish cancer cells from healthy cells and that are possible target structures for a therapeutic vaccination. mRNA molecules carrying the building instructions for these mutated proteins can be produced as individual therapeutic cancer vaccines in the laboratory.

But vaccinating with mRNA is anything but trivial, since the human immune system destroys mRNA molecules. This initially seemingly insurmountable hurdle was only overcome by a discovery made by Katalin Karikó: She found that replacing one of the four RNA building blocks with a chemically related molecule (uridine with pseudouridine) greatly reduces the immunogenicity of mRNA. The biochemist thus paved the way for medical applications of mRNA technology.

In the meantime, several mRNA vaccines against differ checkpoint inhibitors, agents that additionally boost the immune response against tumors. Personalized cancer vaccines that immunize against a patient's individual tumor characteristics are also already being tested in advanced trials - in pancreatic cancer, melanoma, and colorectal cancer.

"This year's three Meyenburg Prize winners are absolutely exceptional scientists. The fact that DKFZ can collaborate with Özlem Türeci and Uǧur Șahin in the development of immunotherapies at the Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology (HI-TRON) Mainz is a great opportunity to achieve progress that will benefit cancer patients," says Michael Baumann, Chairman of the Board of DKFZ.

from left to right: Stefan Pfister, Michael Platten, Katalin Karikó, Stefan Fröhling, Uǧur Șahin, Michael Baumann, Özlem Türeci, Wolfgang Henkel. © Jürgen Arlt / HI-TRON Mainz

About Katalin Karikó Katalin Karikó is Professor at the University of Szeged and Associate Professor at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. She is a former senior vice president of BioNTech AG, where she served from 2013 to 2022.

Karikó received her Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Szeged, Hungary, in 1982, and for the past four decades her research has focused on RNA-mediated mechanisms with the goal of developing in vitro-transcribed mRNA for protein therapy. She studied RNA-mediated immune activation and co-discovered that nucleoside modifications suppress the immunogenicity of RNA, expanding the therapeutic potential of mRNA. Karikó is a co-inventor on numerous mRNA-related patents on the use of non-immunogenic, nucleoside-modified RNA for vaccines and therapies.

She co-founded and served as CEO of RNARx, a company dedicated to the development of nucleoside-modified mRNA for therapeutics, from 2006 to 2013. Her patent on nucleoside-modified uridines in mRNA, co-invented with Drew Weissman, is used to make BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna's COVID-19 mRNA vaccines.

About Uǧur Șahin Uğur Şahin is a physician, academic researcher and entrepreneur. After his medical studies and doctorate by the University of Cologne, he was habilitated in molecular medicine by the University of Saarland in 1999. Since 2014, he has held a professorship in Translational Immunology at the University Medical Center of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. In 2001, Uǧur Șahin founded Ganymed Pharmaceuticals AG together with Özlem Türeci. In 2008, he co-founded BioNTech AG, of which he remains Chief Executive Officer (CEO) today. In 2010, he was among the founders of the Institute for Translational Oncology at the University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (TRON) gGmbH, where he served as Executive Director until 2019. Finally, in 2018, he co-founded the Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology (HI-TRON) Mainz. As part of HI-TRON, Șahin has headed a research department at DKFZ since 2022.

About Özlem Türeci After studying medicine and gaining initial research experience at Saarland University in Homburg, Özlem Türeci moved to Mainz University Medical Center in 2000, where she completed her habilitation in 2002. Initially, she was a staff member of the III Medical Clinic and Polyclinic of the University Medicine Mainz and research group leader in an immunological collaborative research center. Since her habilitation, she has worked as a private lecturer at the University Medical Center Mainz in the field of cancer immunotherapy. Since October 1, 2021, Özlem Türeci holds the W3 professorship for Personalized Immunotherapy established by the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz together with the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) and the Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology (HI-TRON) at the University Medicine Mainz.

In 2001, Özlem Türeci was involved in the foundation of Ganymed Pharmaceuticals AG, where she served as CEO until the sale of the company in 2016. Since 2011, she has been a co-founder and board member of the Ci3 Cluster of Individualized Immune Intervention in Mainz. In 2009, she co-founded BioNTech AG, of which she is still the medical director.

Uǧur Șahin and Özlem Türeci have already been honored for their scientific achievements with a number of awards, including the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize 2022 and the German Future Prize 2021 awarded by the Federal President. In 2020, both were named "Person of the Year" by the Financial Times and in 2021 were awarded the Great Cross of Merit (with star) of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Together with Katalin Karikó, Türeci and Șahin received the prestigious Princess of Asturias Award for Technical & Scientific Research in 2022.

The Meyenburg Foundation under the umbrella of the DKFZ has been awarding the prize since 1981. The award, which is normally presented annually for outstanding achievements in cancer research, is one of the most highly endowed science prizes in Germany. Due to the Corona pandemic, the Meyenburg Prizes have been combined in 2020 and 2021.

The significance of this award is also reflected in the fact that numerous Meyenburg Prize winners have already been awarded the Nobel Prize: Andrew Fire, Meyenburg Laureate 2002 (Nobel Prize in Medicine 2006), Elizabeth Blackburn, Meyenburg Laureate of the Year 2006 (Nobel Prize in Medicine 2009), Shinya Yamanaka, Meyenburg Laureate 2007 (Nobel Prize in Medicine 2012), Stefan Hell, Meyenburg Laureate 2011 (Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2014).

Pictures of the award ceremony are available for download: from left to right: Katalin Karikó, Stefan Fröhling, Uǧur Șahin, Michael Platten,Özlem Türeci from left to right: Stefan Pfister, Michael Platten, Katalin Karikó, Stefan Fröhling, Uǧur Șahin, Michael Baumann, Özlem Türeci, Wolfgang Henkel.

Note on the use of images for press releases Use is free of charge. The German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) permits one-time use in connection with reporting on the subject of the press release or on DKFZ in general. Please indicate as photo credit: "Source: Jürgen Arlt / HI-TRON Mainz ". Distribution of the photographic material to third parties is only permitted after prior consultation with the DKFZ Press Office (Tel. 06221 42 2854, e-mail: Use for commercial purposes is prohibited.


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