Enjoying a Meteoric Career as a Researcher

Former Ullern upper secondary school student Simone Mester is enjoying a meteoric career as a researcher. Her research is aimed at making cancer drugs more efficient by getting them to stay longer in the body. But how did she end up here, and what advice does she have for upper secondary school students who are about to choose what educational path to take?

Simone Mester is 25 years old. Before studying molecular biology and being taken on as a researcher at the University of Oslo (UiO), she took natural science subjects at Ullern upper secondary school. She was one of the first students to be offered a place on a work placement programme under the auspices of Oslo Cancer Cluster. Her placement was at the Institute of Clinical Medicine where she worked at both the Department of Tumor Biology and the Department of Radiation Biology.

But choosing molecular biology after upper secondary school was not an easy choice.

‘I felt unsure at the time. I remember thinking a lot about what jobs would be available to me after studying molecular biology. At the same time, the work placements had given me an idea of what it means to work as a researcher. Without that, I would never have dared to choose molecular biology, but would have gone for medicine instead,’ says Simone Mester.

Inspired by Inger
Now, just five years after celebrating her graduation from Ullern, Simone is a researcher at the University of Oslo (Department of Biosciences and Department of Pharmacology) and at Oslo University Hospital (Department of Cancer Immunology) as a member of Jan Terje Andersen and Inger Sandlie’s research group. As chance would have it, Professor Inger Sandlie is a member of the board of Oslo Cancer Cluster and is one of the founders of two enterprises working on a new form of cancer treatment.

‘Inger was one of my lecturers when I took my bachelor’s degree, and I found her very inspiring. She has won several innovation awards and started up businesses. I like working on research that is complex but understandable, and that can form the basis for new and better treatment for serious illnesses,’ says Simone.

So it is no great surprise that Simone’s research project focuses on developing better cancer drugs that stay longer in the body. This enables the drug to kill more cancer cells at lower doses, which means that there are also fewer side effects. This was also the focus of her master’s thesis.

‘My master’s thesis was well received. It opened the door to Inger Sandlie and Jan Terje Andersen’s research group, but chance played a part as well, of course,’ says Simone modestly.

Chance always plays some part, but Simone has no reason to be modest. She is not where she is today as a result of chance alone.

Do not choose the most prestigious fields
Simone is very happy that she did not choose a subject that is better known than molecular biology in terms of status and job opportunities. She encourages upper secondary students to think about what they are good at and what they think is fun when making the hard choice of which direction to take after upper secondary school.

‘I feel that it’s a general problem that so many young people choose high status professions such as law, engineering and medicine, rather than looking at other possibilities. When I tell people that I’m a molecular biologist, they don’t understand what it is, and they don’t ask either, but that’s OK. It’s more important to choose something you think is fun, because that means you will also perform better, even though it’s hard work,’ says Simone.

She adds:

‘And if you think upper secondary school is tough and that you have to work really hard to get good grades, then I can tell you that university is much tougher. That means that it’s really important that you choose a field you’re passionate about,’ says Simone.

She encourages students to talk to their subject teachers about possible career choices.

‘I had several good biology teachers at Ullern, and was considering studying biology. However, Ragni, one of my teachers, was adamant that I should focus on molecular biology since I was particularly good at it,’ says Simone.

She has never regretted her decision. When we ask her what fascinates her about molecular biology, she says:

‘I’m working on such a tiny scale with things like DNA, protein and cells, the building blocks for all life. It’s like a different universe, and, in the beginning, it was hard to understand how I fitted in,’ Simone says.

But after listening to Inger’s lectures and later becoming part of her research team, she is sure about her decision.

The SPARK Winner And the Prime Minister
Simone completed her master’s degree in 2017, by which time the university had already granted her application for innovation funds to continue her research. In addition, she is the youngest person at the university to be accepted for ‘Spark Norway’, an innovation programme at UiO:Life Science, which Oslo Cancer Cluster has helped to establish.

‘My SPARK project is an extension of the project I began during my master’s studies. Of all the proteins I’ve created, I’ve found one with the ability to stay in the blood stream for a very long time. That means that it doesn’t break down so quickly. At the same time, a lab in the Netherlands has developed several new antibodies that can effectively kill cancer cells. The problem is that the antibodies break down quickly in the body. So now we’re trying to combine these antibodies with our unique technology, in the hope of tailoring the next generation of cancer drugs,’ says Simone.

The aim of the SPARK innovation programme is to give young researchers a chance to further develop their own ideas in health-related life science for the benefit of patients and society at large. And Simone’s project really fits the bill in that respect, something a lot of people agree with.

When Prime Minister Erna Solberg opened the new incubator ShareLab at the Oslo Science Park in March this year, a competition was organised between the SPARK participants. And guess who won?

None other than Simone.

Ragni Fet on Simone:

Ragni is a biology teacher at Ullern upper secondary school. Simone Mester was one of her students for all three years: first in natural science and then in biology for two years. Simone was part of Ragni’s first cohort of students nine years ago.

‘I remember Simone very well, and we have actually been in touch after she graduated from Ullern upper secondary school. She struggled a bit to stay motivated while taking her bachelor’s degree in biology, and I talked to her about how that was completely natural and that things would improve at master’s level,’ says Ragni.

And it’s safe to say that the pep talk worked.

Ragni was also the one who recommended Simone to study molecular biology.

‘Many upper secondary school students tend to have a too narrow perspective when it comes to choosing an education and profession. I’m trying to expand their horizons, and I strongly recommended that Simone study molecular biology rather than medicine, which she was considering at the time,’ says Ragni.

She is both pleased and proud that Simone is doing so well as a researcher at the University of Oslo, but she is not the least bit surprised.

‘Simone was very good at biology and really grasped the subject in her final year. I seem to remember giving her the best grade in biology. It’s great that she’s doing so well now. I’m really rooting for her. She has everything it takes to succeed, from intelligence to social skills and work capacity,’ says Ragni.

She is really pleased that the work placement offered to Ullern students was the decisive factor in Simone’s decision to go for a career as a researcher.

‘Students and society at large are very under-informed about what research is and what being a researcher entails. When students praise each other, they say “What are you, a brain researcher or something?”, so they clearly think you have to be extremely clever to become a researcher. Most people find research diffuse, so it’s great that some students can go on work placements and experience first-hand what research is and what a researcher does,’ says Ragni.

Creating One Cancer Vaccine Per Patient

Oslo Cancer Cluster member Vaccibody is making headway with their cancer vaccine technology. Now they are ready with clinical trials involving 40 patients in Germany, the first patient is already enrolled.

 

Neoantigens Reveals Cancer Cells
Cancer is famous for its ability to deceive, appearing to the immune system as normal tissue while wreaking havoc on the body. But what if cancer cells could be revealed with subtle but unmistakable characteristics that revealed their true nature?

This revealing clue exists and is called neoantigens, which are mutated (or changed/altered) proteins found only in cancer cells. This is the science behind what Vaccibody and Agnete Fredriksen is currently doing, working to develop vaccines that use neoantigens to help patients’ own immune systems recognize and fight cancer tumors.

— I dare to say that this is quite unique. Each vaccine is thoroughly customized for each individual cancer patient. One vaccine per patient! What we do is conduct biopsies and blood tests to reveal each patient’s unique set of neoantigens and with our technology we have the ability to create a potent individualized vaccine in a relatively short time at reasonable cost, says Agnete B. Fredriksen, President and Chief Scientific Officer at Vaccibody.

Extra Effective With Checkpoint Inhibition
The Vaccibody researchers analyze individual tumor genomes and the patients’ immune systems to select an optimal mix of neoantigens.

— We can do that in a few days because of modern technology. Then we monitor and record the changes we think the immune system will react to and include them in the personalized vaccine. The neoantigen technology is then combined with so called checkpoint inhibitor therapy, which stops tumors from suppressing immune-system activity — to make the vaccine extra effective.

With this personalized medicine approach, each patient receives a unique DNA vaccine, in combination with standard of care checkpoint inhibitor therapy.

Vaccibody has also reached the front page of VG! Read the story here. (In Norwegian)

Clinical Trials in Germany
In the upcoming German clinical trials the vaccine will be tested on patients with locally advanced or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer, melanoma, renal, bladder or head and neck cancer.

— Our technology is very flexible and it can record a number of different changes. The vaccine is therefore applicable as a treatment for many different kinds of cancers. The ones included in the trial are chosen because they contain a high number of mutations and changes creating a good basis to create a neoantigen vaccine.

During the trial Vaccibody will check if the vaccine is safe and without side effects.

— We really think it is based on previous experience with this platform! And we will of course check if the vaccine has the expected immune response and investigate signs of clinical efficacy, says Fredriksen.

Breakthrough Agreement for Phoenix Solutions

A new exciting collaboration among two Oslo Cancer Cluster members has been initiated. GE Healthcare has agreed to be the manufacturer of the target drug delivery platform ACT, made by Phoenix Solutions.

Early Christmas Present
As an early Christmas present to each other the two companies announced that they had signed an agreement securing manufacturing for ACT, short for Acoustic Cluster Therapy, a technology platform for targeted drug delivery. CEO at Phoenix Solutions, Per Sontum, emphasized the importance of gaining a manufacturer that had experience with similar products.

“We are excited to sign this agreement and get GE on board as contract manufacturer of our product. With more than 20 years of experience producing Sonazoid and Optison, GE`s Oslo organization is the world leading site for the manufacturing of this class of pharmaceuticals.”

From GE`s Womb
The collaboration, however, is not totally out of the blue. Phoenix Solutions sprung out from GE Healthcare in 2013. GE`s General Manager for Norway, Bjørn Fuglaas believes this tie between the two companies is an advantage:

“We are very pleased that Phoenix has chosen to work with GE for this project, which is in line with the expectations we had when the company was spun out of GE in 2013. This is an area of interest and we believe GE to be uniquely positioned in this field given existing and strong capabilities within production of disperse pharmaceuticals, and microbubbles in particular”, he says.

This agreement also secures what is called Good manufacturing practice (GMP) for Phoenix Solutions. Making their product and company a safer potential for investors and further along in their development than time should suggest.

A Very Promising ACT
ACT is a special and interesting targeting device. It is an ultrasound mediated drug delivery system that specializes in beating the vascular barrier. It has a wide range of therapeutically useful applications, but Its primary use being the ability to deliver sufficiently high concentrations of drug to the tumor without contaminating its surroundings. Phoenix thinks ACT is a promising targeting system for pancreatic, liver, triple negative breast and prostate cancers, and has extremely promising pre-clinical results so far.

Oncoinvent With New Lab and Bright Future

The cancer research company and Oslo Cancer Cluster-member Oncoinvent opened this Thursday a brand-new lab and research facilities at Nydalen Oslo. Now they control the whole production line and continue their development of their lead product candidate Radspherin.

A Good Year
2017 has been a good year for Oncoinvent. The company has now relocated and built new office and laboratory facilities, grown from four to twelve employees, and raised new capital. CEO at Oncoinvent Jan A. Alfheim believes that this represents a significant milestone for the company and will enable the company to further develop Radspherin®, a novel alpha-emitting radioactive microparticle designed for treatment of metastatic cancers in body cavities.

And Oncoinvent ends the year in fashion by opening brand new laboratory and research facilities. A lot of interested people came to tour the new facilities, observing an impressive lab with special infrastructure. Treating radioactivity, and circulating air in a facility that treats radioactive materials, calls for an extra advanced ventilation system.

Lab With all the Facilities
The idea of the new research facility is to be able to contain the whole production line, from research to drug manufacturing, to one location. All this contained in an area of 581 m2.

Creating a modern lab with the capabilities to treat radioactive materials in an active and well populated part of Oslo demands very strict guidelines. The production suites in the facility are constructed to be qualified for Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) for production of Medical Product Candidates. Systems for purifying and monitoring of air and water quality as well as the removal of any potential radioactivity have been installed to ensure the safety of the operators, population and the environment.

The Production and Research areas of the laboratory will facilitate both the development of the Radspherin program and other discovery projects of the Company.

A Weapon for Precision Medicine
Radspherin® has been shown to cause a significant reduction in tumor cell growth an it is anticipated that the product can potentially treat several forms of metastatic cancer. Oncoinvent is developing Radspherin® as a ready-to-use injectable product that seeks out cancer tumors and destroys them from inside by emitting its radioactive content.

The first clinical indication for Radspherin® will be treatment of peritoneal carcinomatosis, a rare type of cancer that occurs in the peritoneum, the thin layer of tissue that covers abdominal organs and surrounds the abdominal cavity. Additionally, Oncoinvent has lined up a collaboration with European and American clinical research centers for the clinical development Radspherin®.