How Cancer Research Becomes a Company
The Department of Cellular Therapy is great at transforming cancer research into new companies. The latest spin-out is Zelluna.
The Department of Cellular Therapy at the Radium Hospital, Oslo University Hospital, features one of Europe’s largest and most modern good manufacturing practice (GMP) facilities for cellular products. Head of the department is Prof. Gunnar Kvalheim. They are also conducting translational research, and their research has been spun out as several companies, such as the newly established company Zelluna.
The immunomonitoring unit is a major part of the department, and is led by Else Marit Inderberg. This unit is situated in the Oslo Cancer Cluster Incubator, which is an integrated part of the Oslo Cancer Cluster Innovation Park. A translational research lab has been created and is associated to the immunomonitoring unit.
The cancer killer
“Our major strength is that we have all aspects within the department to take cellular research from the bed to bench and back again. We have the equipment and the specialists to do everything here”, says Inderberg.
Together with Sébastien Wälchli, she is also the project leader for the translational research lab. Here, they develop cancer vaccines and work with adoptive T cell therapy. A T cell, or T lymphocyte, is a type of lymphocyte (a subtype of white blood cell) that plays a central role in cell-mediated immunity. T cells have the capacity to kill cancer cells.
In the lab, they look for a T cell receptor (TCR), which is a molecule found on the surface of T cells. They use Chimeric antigen receptors (CARs), which are engineered receptors that graft an arbitrary speci city onto a T cell. Ultimately, the researchers work with a universal cell line for cellular therapy – a universal cancer killer.
Innovation from the biobank
“In the translational research lab, we think innovation all the time. In our research, we actively search for solutions to unmet medical needs within cancer”, says Inderberg.
The translational research lab was built upon the work done by the section for immunotherapy established by professor emeritus Gustav Gaudernack, and most of its activity relies on the use of a database of patient samples called the biobank. This specific biobank represents an inestimable source of information about the patients’ response to immunological treatments over the years. Furthermore, the patient material can be reanalysed and therapeutic molecules isolated. This is the basis of the company Zelluna.
The Department of Cellular Therapy is heavily involved in both academic and industrial collaborations. The latter include collaborations with several biotech companies as well as pharma companies situated in the Oslo Cancer Cluster Innovation Park, developing novel immunotherapy cancer treatments. Examples of industrial collaborations are the German company Medigene, the Norwegian biotechs Targovax, Ultimovacs, Lytix and PCI Biotech, and the bigger biopharmaceutical companies BMS, Novartis and ThermoFisher.
In addition to their industrial collaborations, the Department of Cellular Therapy also wants to commercialise their own projects.
The Zelluna Spin-out
“Our latest spin-out is Zelluna, which has recently been set up as a start-up. Staff has just been hired to drive the development of TCR-based therapies to clinical trials”, says Sébastien Wälchli.
The TCR-approach is based on identication of T cell receptors from patients clinically benefitting from treatment with vaccines from back in the nineties and early 2000s. The approach is to modify the patient T cells to express the same receptors before giving the cells back to the patients, ready to combat the cancer cells.
The company has been established through the efforts of the Radium Hospital Research Foundation as well as Inven2.
“This is a very interesting and unique approach. We are eagerly anticipating the development of the company”, says Inderberg.