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Innovations in Immunology 2019

How to translate discoveries into treatments fast


Mario Assenmacher PhD

Senior Manager of Research and Development, Miltenyi Biotec

Ensuring patients receive the benefits of ground-breaking basic science discoveries as quickly as possible requires intellectual and technological collaboration.

The latest hot topic in immuno-oncology – following checkpoint inhibitors – is CAR-T cell therapy. It went from the very first research publication in 1989, through development and into clinic in under 20 years.

Mario Assenmacher, senior manager of research and development at Miltenyi Biotec, which specialises in systems that empower biomedical research, said: “One of the first translational successes, when the first patients showed that this approach worked, was in 2011.”

“It was then just six years until the first product was approved in 2017. That was very fast.”

“It’s a perfect example of how innovation can make a difference and be really disruptive. It’s about changing the paradigm and improving on areas where our therapeutic options are still far from perfect.”

Speeding up the bench-to-bedside time frame

Moving from bench to bedside is not always a straightforward process, however, meaning discoveries can often get “stuck” in academia.

The reasons for this, said Mario, included a lack of communication between the research and clinical worlds.

Sometimes we are too afraid to step into innovation to make progress possible.

“It’s really important that basic research discoveries are connected to the translation side of things,” he said.

“For a long time, especially in Europe, researchers would just stay in their own world and were not motivated to interact with the wider medical community. That is starting to change but we still need to improve things further.”

Complex communication in immuno-oncology

He added that the immunology space in general, and cellular therapy in particular, had its own unique set of obstacles.

“A key hurdle for cellular therapy is that some of these things are  too complicated to be easily translatable or applicable to a broad range of people in a cost-effective way,” he said. “But first of all a deep analysis and understanding of mechanisms is crucial for successful translation in immuno-oncology.
Discovering and unravelling mechanism in the complex interplay of immunology and oncology can be difficult,” said Mario, whose company provides comprehensive research tools to address these challenges, including sample preparation, cell separation, cell culture, and cell analysis, including flow cytometry and imaging.

“Also the generation of cellular therapy products is a complex procedure, which involves a lot of different elements. It involves selecting the right cells, it involves culturing the right cells in the right medium and with the right cytokines, and it involves genetic engineering of the cells.

Based on a strong expertise in immunology and oncology we aim to enable workflow solutions for research as well as clinical translation.”

Embracing opportunities

With so many exciting opportunities presenting themselves in immunotherapy, carving out a clear path to clinic holds huge potential for both developers and patients.

“We want to make translation as easy as possible and finding the right balance between risks and opportunities. Sometimes we are too afraid to step into innovation to make progress possible,” said Mario.

Asked where he saw this progress manifesting in the immediate future, Mario said it was a very exciting time.

“Gene-engineered immune cells is a very powerful avenue that has now started to take off with CAR-T cells and I think will grow heavily. TCR-engineered T cells are coming and the genetic engineering of T cells, especially in solid cancer, is another big topic.”

Embracing these opportunities by moving early research success from basic science into the solid cancer clinical arena is “the next big step” – but it depends on effective translation.

Collaborative approach

Mario believes success relies on engendering collaboration: bringing all the different viewpoints, expertise and priorities out of their silos and into one single mission.

“At Miltenyi, we have a long tradition of intense collaboration with the research community, working in close interaction with researchers on more basic research as well as clinical researchers in different conditions,” he said.

“It means the people who use our technology know their needs, what the crucial points in their applications are and understand the medical needs when it comes to the clinical side of things.”

This approach, he added, led to a deeper understanding of implementation right along the pathway, and, crucially, ensured new treatments made it to the patients who needed them sooner, rather than later.

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