Luca Locatelli for TIME

The inspiring scientific story of creating a COVID-19 vaccine in 2020 was accompanied by an equally inspiring human story. Ozlem Tureci and Ugur Sahin, a German couple from Turkish immigrant families, were researching ways to fight cancer by harnessing mRNA, the molecule that tells our cells which proteins to build. When Sahin first read about COVID, he and Tureci developed a way to deploy mRNA to tell our cells how to build a facsimile of the coronavirus’ spike protein, thus priming our immune system to fight the disease. Their company, BioNTech, partnered with Pfizer to test and distribute the vaccine.

Now Tureci and Sahin have turned their attention back to cancer. This year, some of their immunotherapy cancer vaccines went into clinical trials in Britain. But through it all, even as their stake in BioNTech made them billionaires, they still enjoy riding their old bicycles to spend time working in their lab.

Isaacson, a former managing editor of TIME, is the author of The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

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