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Time Will Always Tell

Why science?

Before my university experience, I had always dreamed of pursuing a career in medicine, but I ended up at a college that offered its students great research opportunities. Every summer, I would find myself in a different location, working on a new project alongside different colleagues. One year, I spent time on the Isle of Anglesey, Wales, studying barnacles! My research was acknowledged in a scientific publication and, from that point onward, I was hooked.

But, though I had cemented the idea of becoming a scientist in my mind, I still wasn’t clear in what area of science I wanted to work. Because I had always had an interest in genetics, I decided to pursue a PhD in the subject with a subspecialty in immunogenetics. Throughout my doctorate, I explored the role of human leukocyte antigens (HLA) in cellular function and the genes that regulated the immune system – trying to find targets that would improve bone marrow transplantation. It was, and still is, an intriguing area of research – probably why I’m still involved with it today!

What advances in immunotherapy have stood out during your career?

Several events have imprinted on my life and impacted my career significantly. The emergence of synthetic biology and the discovery of the structure of T cells are just some examples of moments that have helped shape me as a professional within the industry.

But the crystallization of HLA molecules was like watching lightning strike across the sky. It was awe-inspiring. Not just because we could see the peptides at the heart of these molecules, but because it represented a huge milestone in the progression of scientific research. For the first time, we had a good understanding of these beautiful molecules. The discovery opened new avenues in research and development as we further explored the function of these proteins. The discovery meant that scientists and companies alike could embark on journeys that would help create solutions for areas of unmet need.

What lessons have you learned from working in different research environments?

Each scientific community is like an anthropological cluster. Science is very much a community activity, but the culture differs from country to country. I think it’s important to travel and live with those differences. If you can take the best of the social and scientific cultures of each country you work in, you can contribute to the development of positive working environments that champion and celebrate the individual strengths of your team members.

What’s the story behind Medigene?

Before my team and I joined Medigene, I was the head of a research institute at the Helmholtz Association – an organization with a clear interest in understanding the real-life applications of research. Of course, the researchers who worked there were all tackling problems that had a significant impact on society. This gave me the opportunity to explore both the use of T cells in transplantation and my interest in curing cancers.

My team and I had a successful run in the institution, but we realized that we would have to move into the commercial arena to test the tools and technologies we were working on. It was a huge step for us. We tested our platform in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in an academic environment. Simply put, the world of industry was fascinating. The infrastructure and resources available brought an entirely new dimension to our work. Though there were many lessons to be learned and challenges to overcome, we have also had many successes during our time in pharma. For example, we were the first company in Germany to bring a TCR-T cell therapy to the clinical stage. I’m sure we will celebrate many more milestones as our journey continues.

What are your predictions for the future of immunotherapy?

I think it’s important to look back at the achievements we have already made in the field before casting our minds toward future aspirations. Scientific research is a labor of love and, sometimes, breakthroughs are years in the making. Take antibodies, for example; it took several decades before the first products were commercialized to treat cancer. Finding the right target molecules and understanding the immune reactions to these products took years. But success breeds success. Once the first breakthrough occurred, there was no stopping the pharmaceutical industry from continued innovation. Now, there are antibody products not only for cancer, but also for autoimmune diseases. The field is ever-expanding.

We’re seeing the same pattern emerge in the CAR T field. At the moment, companies and researchers are trying to find the right targets, elucidate cell structures, and navigate the complexities of delivering these therapies to patients. There are many questions yet to be answered, but the field is undoubtedly progressing.

TCR-T therapies are a little further behind, but developers can learn from the successes and failures that have affected other segments of advanced medicine and TCR-Ts open-up a whole new universe of potential target molecules to tackle. I’m excited to see what happens next!

What question does the industry need to address?

Cost is always a pressure in drug development, but for living therapies – particularly gene therapies and immunotherapies – we need to think of cost-effective ways to manufacture and distribute products.

The fact that living cells will remain a key component in the development of these products leads to difficult, but necessary cost considerations. I’m confident that pharma will find ways of bringing these important medicines to patients, but time will be an important consideration. As technologies develop, so too will our ability to create access. Who could have imagined the progress the pharmaceutical industry has made in the last 10 years? Imagine what the next decade will bring!

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About the Author
Maryam Mahdi

Deputy Editor

After finishing my degree, I envisioned a career in science communications. However, life took an unexpected turn and I ended up teaching abroad. Though the experience was amazing and I learned a great deal from it, I jumped at the opportunity to work for Texere. I'm excited to see where this new journey takes me!

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