Tag Archives: Cancer

What I Learned From a Conference Call With the Co-Founders of BioNTech

Today, I had the opportunity to join a call organized by STAT News with the co-founders of BioNTech, the company behind the highly successful COVID vaccine. Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci are incredibly impressive people. Here were some of the highlights:

  • BioNTech was working on cancer vaccines as COVID appeared, but after Ugur read early reports of COVID cases in China, they realized their technology was well suited to making a COVID vaccine
  • Wuhan is one of the most heavily connected cities in China, perhaps explaining how the pandemic spread so quickly
  • We can’t expect the vaccine rollout to go smoothly right at the beginning, but they are confident we’ll improve as we gain experience
  • We are likely to get some data on asymptomatic infections amongst the vaccinated in February. (This may have implications for how long we have to wear masks, etc.)
  • If we delay the 2nd dose of a COVID vaccine in order to get more people their first dose, we should avoid delaying by too much. Whether we delay is a risk/benefit calculation best left to governments.
  • The new technology they’re most excited about is using immune mechanisms against cancer. They have a drug that’s within weeks of beginning testing.

These STAT Events are free and open to anyone. It was a fascinating call and I was honored to be able to ask a question to these incredible scientists (the answer is the last bullet point above). The recording of the meeting should go up on STAT’s website soon.

Could the MRNA Vaccines Used for COVID Also Cure Multiple Sclerosis?

The vaccine blocked all clinical signs of MS in mice, while control animals experienced the typical symptoms of the disease. 

Fierce Biotech

BioNTech, the company behind one of the best COVID vaccines, has reported excellent results in curing an MS-like disease in mice. The treated animals showed no signs of the disease, and those that were already having MS symptoms got better. These results were recently published in the journal Science. You can find an excellent discussion of these results by the Harvard epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding here.

This MS vaccine uses the same MRNA approach as the two most effective COVID vaccines. BioNTech plans to use a similar technique to produce personalized cancer vaccines.

A new age in medicine may be dawning.

“Forschungszentrum der Biotech-Unternehmen BioNTech AG und Ganymed Pharmaceuticals AG” by MWKEL-RLP is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

How We Can Rewrite Our Genetic Blueprint

We may soon be able to edit our own genes using a new technology called CRISPR. It uses a bacteria to change data in the genetic code and could one day cure rare genetic diseases. There is also potential in editing genes to prevent cancer and heart disease.

In the new excellent book Editing Humanity by Kevin Davies, we learn how the technology was developed and how it has been applied and misapplied. CRISPR has cured a patient of sickle cell disease already, but was also used inappropriately to sloppily modify the genes of several babies in China. It’s tool with enormous potential, but that includes potential for abuse.

I am intrigued to see if this tool could one day be used to reverse the DNA errors that come with aging.

As an investor, it struck me that Beam Therapeutics, a company founded by David Liu and Feng Zhang, two of the best scientists in the field, went public at a valuation of only $180 million. If CRISPR doesn’t revolutionize health, perhaps it’s worth zero. But what if it succeeds? It could be the most valuable company in history. Indeed, since this book came out in mid-2020, I see the share price has increased nearly fivefold.

I also think we would benefit greatly from increasing our investment as a society in basic research. I was surprised to learn that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute supports the lab of one of the co-inventors of CRISPR, Jennifer Doudna, at a rate of $1 million per year. While HHMI’s work is outstanding and to be commended, I imagine Doudna could use a lot more than that. What would she do with $10 or $100 million a year? Our government and we as individuals (through crowdfunding) could get it to her and other leading scientists. The benefits we could reap can only be imagined.

Davies’ book is entertaining, readable, and informative throughout. I’d highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in CRISPR, gene editing, or health in general!