BioNTech Founders Receive Trinity Honorary Degrees 

23rd June 2023

Posted In: FYI

Professors Uǧur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, the husband and wife who co-founded the company behind one of the leading COVID-19 vaccines, were among four exceptional individuals conferred recently [June 16, 2023] with honorary degrees of the University of Dublin at Trinity College Dublin.

Uǧur Şahin and Özlem Türeci co-founded the German firm BioNTech, which worked with Pfizer to develop the first mRNA vaccine against COVID-19.

Philanthropist Dr Beate Schuler and scientist Joan Steitz – known for her pioneering work on RNA (ribonucleic acid) – also received Trinity’s highest honour from Trinity’s Chancellor Dr Mary McAleese at a ceremony conducted in Latin in the historic Public Theatre.

Pictured (l-r): Uǧur Şahin, Joan Steitz, Linda Doyle, Mary McAleese, Dr. Beate Schuler and Özlem Türeci.

More on the awardees:

Uǧur Şahin, Doctor of Science (Sc.D.)

Uǧur Şahin is a trained physician and a professor of Translational Oncology and Immunology at the University of Mainz, as well as a Helmholtz Professor focused on mRNA immunotherapy. Working with Prof. Özlem Türeci, M.D. since the late 1990s, Şahin has accomplished a series of fundamental advances in the field of mRNA vaccines. Their work, including the creation of the first approved mRNA drug, has had a transformative impact on medicine. Şahin and Türeci substantially improved mRNA translation, addressing the long-standing challenge of low mRNA stability and potency. They discovered and leveraged specific uptake mechanisms of mRNA by immune cells to boost vaccine effectiveness, leading to the first human trials of nanoparticulate mRNA vaccines and the development of highly potent vaccines for human use. Their pioneering work on neoantigen mRNA vaccines laid the foundation for individualized cancer vaccines, enabling potential therapies tailored to each patient’s distinct cancer mutation profile. Şahin is co-founder of Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, founded in 2001 and later acquired by Astellas Pharma, which successfully developed the antibody zolbetuximab for cancer therapy; and BioNTech, founded in 2008. Under Şahin’s leadership as CEO, BioNTech has achieved remarkable successes, most notably with the development of BNT162b2 (the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine), the first ever approved mRNA product. This vaccine has been distributed worldwide and has been instrumental in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. Sahin has mentored more than 50 Ph.D. students during his career and remains committed to training the next generation of scientists. He has also contributed to more than 950 international patents and has received numerous prestigious awards for his work.

The Public Orator Anna Chahoud said of Prof. Şahin:

“In faith and audacity he compares with the natural philosophers who first inquired into the principles of life, thousands of years ago, on the coast of Asia Minor.

Beate Schuler Doctor of Science (Sc.D.)
Beate Schuler is a philanthropist and valued advisor who has made great contributions to Trinity and Ireland. While born and educated in Germany, Dr Schuler spent her summer holidays in Rathdrum in County Wicklow. After qualifying as a doctor, she moved to Ireland and founded a successful pharmaceutical company in Arklow with her father. Establishing close links with Trinity, Dr Schuler became one of its most generous and thoughtful benefactors. She supports the Trinity Summer School for Chemistry for students from disadvantaged schools, which has a progression rate to Trinity programmes of nearly 40%, and funds the Schuler-Ussher Lectureship in Translational Chemistry. During Covid-19, Dr Schuler established the PhD-Hardship Fund and in 2021 founded the Schuler Democracy Forum in the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute. Other gifts include “The Double Helix” sculpture by Brian King and a major donation to the Trinity E3 Institute. Dr Schuler takes a personal interest in the projects she supports. Her philanthropy is international in scope, with initiatives in Germany, Portugal and New Zealand as well as Ireland, and focuses particularly on education.  She works tirelessly to promote links between Trinity and German schools and universities.  Dr Schuler is a founding member of the Provost’s Campaign Cabinet, Provost’s Council and campaign advisor.

The Public Orator Anna Chahoud said of Dr Schuler:

“Countless lives have been changed by this magnanimous woman, through research fellowships, doctoral scholarships, and hardship funds.”

Joan Steitz, Doctor of Science ( Sc.D.)

Joan Steitz is the Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University Medical School, a leading scientist in her field and an educator of the highest calibre. She has mentored hundreds of scientists, including many Irish students over the decades. Her breakthrough research in RNA biology has illuminated how cells decode the information in genes to direct their activity, including the intricate changes that occur as the immune system and brain develop. She also showed how a number of cancer-causing viruses can manipulate host cells, releasing the brake on growth-promoting genes.  Steitz has received many awards and honours including election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983; the National Medal of Science in 1986; and the American Society for Cell Biology’s highest honour, the E.B. Wilson Medal, in 2005. In 2018 she was the recipient of the Lasker-Koshland award.

The Public Orator Anna Chahoud commended Prof. Steitz for her fearlessness, saying:

“We have before us a bold scientist who has transformed our knowledge of the RNA world, where genes are coded, decoded, regulated and expressed.”

Özlem Türeci, Doctor of Science (Sc.D.)

Prof. Özlem Türeci, M.D., is a trained physician, academic researcher, and entrepreneur. As a Professor of Personalized Immunotherapy at the Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology (HI-TRON) and Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Türeci’s research focuses on leveraging patients’ immune system to fight cancer and prevent infectious diseases. Her early work made contributions to identifying human tumor antigens, developing monoclonal antibody therapies against novel targets, and creating clinical-stage personalized cancer immunotherapies based on non-synonymous mutations identified through next-generation sequencing. Türeci’s contributions to the mRNA vaccine field include scientific groundwork, discoveries, technology development, translational and clinical research, as well as the development and regulatory approval of the first ever approved mRNA drug. She and her partner, Prof. Ugur Sahin, M.D., overcame the challenge of poor mRNA potency through independent optimizations of structural elements in the mRNA scaffold and pioneering nanoparticulate mRNA vaccines, improving their potency and enabling their successful use in humans. As a co-founder of multiple entrepreneurial ventures, including Ganymed Pharmaceuticals (acquired by Astellas Pharma) and BioNTech, she has translated science into medical applications. As Chief Medical Officer at BioNTech, Türeci leads the clinical development of various oncology approaches and oversees over 20 international clinical trials. Remaining deeply rooted in academia, she serves as a speaker, lecturer, and mentor. Türeci has received dozens of prestigious awards for her work and holds over 540 international patents.

The Public Orator Anna Chahoud praised Prof Türeci as

“a visionary scientist and physician, an inspiring lecturer and mentor, and an eloquent promoter of medical science and technology”, who “combined her knowledge, wisdom and intelligence with the vision of innovative technologies fit to translate scientific research into medical applications available to everyone.”