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Exhibition design

The module of the winners 2021

The award winners consisting of husband-and-wife team Dr. med. Uğur Şahin and Prof. Dr. med. Özlem Türeci as well as Prof. Dr. med. Christoph Huber and Prof. Katalin Karikó Ph.D. received the Deutscher Zukunftspreis 2021 for developing the first mRNA-based vaccine against the COVID-19 virus that infected more than 765 million people during the pandemic alone.

(v.l.n.r.) Prof. Dr. med. Uğur Şahin, Prof. Dr. med. Özlem Türeci,
Prof. Dr. med. Christoph Huber

The four researchers had already been working for decades on innovative mRNA technologies. Instead of transporting proteins into the cells, the mechanism of the technologies is to use information for these proteins that is much easier to produce and to use this information (the mRNA) to allow the cells to produce the desired proteins themselves.

In the late 1980’s, Katalin Karikó recognized that artificially produced messenger RNA can be used to treat and target individual diseases. She succeeded in modifying a building block of synthetic RNA in such a way that the biomolecule can be used in medical applications. Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci adopted this approach together and refined the mRNA technology – supported by immunologist Christoph Huber. Their common vision was to establish a new form of treatment that relies on the body’s own immune system to heal diseases, principally cancer.

The award-winning team was able to build on these unique research findings on cancer immunotherapies based on mRNA in their development of the COVID-19 vaccine. In the vaccine, the mRNA transfers genetic information to cells in muscle tissue. According to the building plan delivered by the messenger RNA, the cells build proteins that trigger a response from the immune system: the foundation for the reaction to the vaccine and immunization.

While the pandemic grew continuously worse, the prizewinners were the first to manage to develop this vaccine and receive approval – in an unprecedented short period of time.

Those involved in its development called it “Lightspeed”, and that is also the central theme of the module. In the display case on the wall designed to intrigue visitors is the bioreactor in which the very first batch of vaccine was produced. A bolt of lightning projects out from it that symbolizes both the path of research from the idea to the project as well as the unbelievable rate of its implementation.

The exhibit then showcases a module that conveys the essence of the innovation: the structure of the vaccine Tozinameran featuring mRNA coated by lipids to transport the biomolecule, without damaging it, into the cell where the immune defense process is activated.

Millions of doses of the vaccine were produced and shipped in plain vials. They were able to protect people around the world – as represented here by the “parade” of vaccine vials.
The biological and pharmacological background, the medical and manufacturing and not least of all the necessary organizational steps of the “Lightspeed” project are presented in depth on an explanatory display screen.

In the module’s media stations, the husband-and-wife researcher team Şahin and Türeci have their say in an interview on the vaccine’s development, important, however, to the continuation of their research on mRNA at the time, on immunotherapy and its future use in personalized cancer treatment. This is the field to which they will now re-direct their research again.

Information is also still available on the enormous economic relevance of the project. An animation, the ZDF feature story on the award ceremony, once again presents the sequence of development of the COVID-19 vaccine.