For immediate release
The scientific co-founders of global biotechnology company, BioNTech, who launched the world’s first approved Covid-19 vaccine, and world-renowned infectious diseases expert and Director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute), were today awarded prestigious Honorary Doctorates by La Trobe University for their immense contributions to mRNA vaccine development and global health research.
During a special ceremony in Melbourne, Professors Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin (co-founders BioNTech SE) and Professor Sharon Lewin AO (Director, Doherty Institute) were presented with an honorary Doctor of Science by La Trobe University Chancellor John Brumby AO, for their pioneering contributions to vaccinology and medical research (Professors Sahin and Türeci) and for lasting impact on global health and medical research (Professor Lewin).
Professor Türeci gave an oration on the subject of the preventative and therapeutic use of mRNA.
La Trobe Vice-Chancellor, Professor John Dewar AO, said the awards were a fitting recognition of the outstanding contributions the three distinguished scientists had made to global health research.
“The extraordinary contribution to global medical research that these three scientists have made is immeasurable,” Professor Dewar said.
“During decades of research, they have achieved a series of original scientific and technological breakthroughs based on their basic research efforts, their persistent development work and their determined and fast reaction to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2. The isolation of the novel corona virus SARS-CoV-2 and the development of the world’s first approved vaccine against COVID-19 was a medical breakthrough and made a difference for individuals and humankind. Their work has undoubtedly saved millions of lives.”
“These remarkable researchers, who have also made significant strides in mRNA development, cancer research and in strategies to achieve an HIV cure, also serve as role models for students and researchers here in Australia, including at La Trobe University, who are forging their way forward in their chosen fields.”
BioNTech co-founders Professors Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin
Working as a scientist couple since the late 1990s, Professors Türeci and Şahin have accomplished a series of fundamental advances in the field of various immunotherapy modalities. Their work on mRNA vaccines encompassed discoveries and hundreds of inventions that span the whole spectrum from basic scientific groundwork to clinical application-enabling translation. Their discoveries provided the rules for designing mRNA vector scaffolds, delivering mRNA to dendritic cells in the body, overcoming the challenges of poor translation, low stability, and insufficient immunogenicity of mRNA vaccines.
In 2020, under the couple’s scientific leadership and based on their groundwork, BioNTech together with its partner Pfizer developed and launched the world's first approved COVID-19 vaccine, known as Comirnaty (BNT162b2).
This historic vaccine is regarded as the fastest vaccine developed against a new pathogen in the history of medicine and has since been administered to billions worldwide. It is also the first drug based on gene-encoding mRNA that has been approved for use in humans. In 2020 the two professors were named the Financial Times ‘People of the Year’.
Professor Türeci, who spent a research sabbatical in Melbourne at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) early in her career, has been working for more than two decades on mRNA-based cancer vaccines including tailor-made therapies to patients with encouraging clinical results published so far, providing new hope and improved outcomes for those battling this disease.
Professor Türeci said: “As trained physicians who have treated patients, it has always been important to us that innovation does not stop at the bench in the lab, but it actually reaches patients. We are honoured to become members of the La Trobe University community, a place that provides excellent academic research to bridge this gap between discovery and delivery. Personally, I was very excited to visit Melbourne again – it is a great place for students and scientists.”
Working with his wife since the late 1990s, Professor Şahin has made a series of fundamental advances that span the spectrum from mechanistic over translational to clinical research with a focus on understanding how cancer evades the immune system and using such deep understanding to develop various immunotherapeutic and personalised modalities including mRNA-based vaccines.
Professor Şahin said: “The convergence of scientific knowledge and application to the patients’ benefit is what propels our work. This is only possible when staying closely rooted in academia to contribute to this translational effort. We feel very honoured to receive the doctorate from La Trobe University and are looking forward to growing a scientific collaboration across the continents.”
Doherty Institute Director Professor Sharon Lewin AO
A world-renowned infectious diseases physician and scientist with extensive expertise in leading global research teams to perform novel clinical trials, Professor Lewin is an international expert in the field of HIV latency and eradication.
As the Director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute), Professor Lewin played an important role in the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She was part of the team that first isolated the SARS-CoV2 virus in January 2020, which supported more than 35 laboratories to develop novel diagnostics and therapeutics for COVID-19 early in the pandemic. She was co-chair of Australia’s National COVID Health and Research Advisory Committee, providing key advice on COVID-19 to Australia’s Chief Medical Officer.
She has pioneered novel approaches to identify and eliminate HIV latency, which persists in people living with HIV on antiviral therapy and has led global scientific collaborative efforts towards finding a cure for HIV. She is the elected President of the International AIDS Society.
Professor Lewin said: “I am truly honoured to receive an honorary degree from La Trobe University. Major advances that the world has made in global pandemics such as COVID-19 and HIV, have only been possible through science and international collaboration. I am thrilled to be recognised for my contributions to both pandemics, with two of my scientific heroes!”
Photos from the event and a copy of Professor Özlem Türeci’s oration are available on request for media as a recording and transcript.