»Profiling the criminal inside«
Cancer is like a criminal that steals into our body and destroys us from within. The disease is very complex; it contains an enormous number of gene mutations. We are trying to approach it as profilers to decipher its “personality” and use its genetic fingerprint as a target. It really is similar to a criminal investigation.
We want to use the body’s immune system to combat cancer. Many people think that once cancer is there, the body has no resources to stop it. But even if a relatively strong immune system has failed to prevent cancer, it can still help to destroy it. Our hypothesis is that cancer can be eradicated by a patient’s own T cells, which are the immune cells in our body. The approach is extremely logical and elegant in its simplicity.
Immune cells that fail to stop the cancer are programmed to keep failing over the course of its growth, which is catastrophic for the patient. The cells are “taught” that the mutation is part of the body, but this is simply false.
We remove the T cell receptors from failed immune cells, clone them, and put them on fully functioning immune cells so they can “see” the cancer and attack it. You can compare this to a drill that has the right bit, but a dead battery: the bit fits the cancer, but the machine is out of power. We remove the bit and put it on a charged machine, something that is in plentiful supply in the patient’s body. We use tools that the patient actually already has.
This approach has already been successful in animal experiments. The effect is dramatic: the cancer virtually disintegrates. I am very optimistic that it will become effective for humans as well. We have good evidence that all human cancers have mutations that can be targeted by the immune system. Currently we are trying to define sets of patient-specific and cancer-specific mutations. This will enable a highly personalized therapy.
My own mother and some of my closest friends died of cancer. Like them, most people are healthy, but cancer is a thief that breaks in and robs them of their best years. That perspective has driven me to find a cure.
Many people retire at my age, but for me that’s out of the question. I love going to my office every day. You could say that research is my obsession; there are endless mysteries to be solved. I collaborate with my wife now; she has a talent for experiments and our work together is very innovative. I think it is important to stay close to discovery, even as you get older.
Please close your eyes for a moment and think about your research project. What do you see at first?
Our international consortium making important advances in the field of cancer therapy.
What kind of interview question would you like to be asked?
What makes our research approach so promising when it comes to identifying an effective form of treatment for specific types of cancer once and for all?
Please name three things that you spontaneously connect to Albert Einstein!
Apart from his incredible originality:
- Einstein's letter, in which he wrote that he could not discern any trace of guilt or regret on the part of the Germans.
- That Einstein refused to sign an appeal to President Roosevelt to revise the Morgenthau plan, which the President had already signed.
- That Einstein commented when Max Born returned to Germany that he was “migrating back to the land of the mass-murderers of our kinsmen“.
What do you do first thing in the morning when you arrive at your workplace?
Whatever task I set myself the day before; otherwise it's easy to get distracted.
What would your research project look like if it was a piece of art?
Detecting the murderer called cancer in our bodies and removing every trace of him.
Please imagine you had one free wish to guarantee the success of your research project. What would it be?
To identify criteria which would enable us to predict which T cell receptor (TCR) specific to each cancer mutation is able to cure cancer, and which is not.
Is there a place in Berlin that links to the work on your research project?
The Max Delbrück Center (MDC) for Molecular Medicine and the Charité campus at Buch, together with the incredibly high calibre of research potential which is to be found there.
Please give your research project a suitable fantasy name!
'Tracking down the murderer within.'
What is the most favourite word you ever heard in Berlin? And what does it mean?
'Kaffe' (with the emphasis on the first syllable)
Who or what inspires you at work?
Logic: cancer is created by mutations, and we can utilise these mutations as highly-selective targets for killer T cells.
Which district in Berlin do you like the most, and why?
Berlin-Buch: so close to nature, and with the most beautiful nightingales I have ever heard in my life singing at night there on the campus. It's good that Buch welcomes refugees. I was once one myself.
What characteristics distinguish researchers from other people?
A certain obsession when it comes to solving puzzles and problems.
What do you think: Is there a true prejudice about researchers?
Sadly, they often fail to treat humanity and ethics as being of at least equal ranking.
With whom would you like to exchange your workplace for one day, and what would you do then?
Credits: Pablo Castagnola