“As an immunologist, it’s easy to be enthusiastic”
16 November 2018
Straddling academia and the pharmaceutical industry, Sara Mangsbo is building a platform for a future as a research scientist and serial entrepreneur in immunotherapy. “The Nobel Prize was another piece of fantastic news in a field that is already riding a huge wave of success.”
Cancer immunotherapy – using and strengthening the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells – is a rapidly advancing scientific field. Only about ten years after the initial breakthroughs, new drugs have markedly increased survival rates among patients with skin cancer and other cancers. The number of researchers in the field is also growing almost exponentially and when they gathered in October for the Cancer Immunotherapy Conference, they also had the opportunity to congratulate pioneer James P. Allison upon the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Sara Mangsbo, research group leader, associate professor and teacher in antibody therapy at Uppsala University was among the conference participants in New York.
“The Nobel Prize was another piece of fantastic news in a field that is already riding a huge wave of success. Uppsala University’s immunotherapeutic research environment established itself early on among the leaders of the field, with Thomas Tötterman and Angelica Loskog as early prominent figures, and we are now working to further develop our platform.
Grant provides opportunities for clinical studies
Mangsbo returned to Uppsala University in spring 2016 when she was granted four years of funding by SSMF, the Swedish Society for Medical Research. The grant gave her the financial scope to lay the foundations of her team, now seven researchers strong, and above all to resume previous attempts to create new ways of producing and activating immune cells that recognise and can be concentrated to tumours.
“SSMF has given me the incredible opportunity to see our lab results tested in clinical studies. This is a true milestone and new projects are waiting in the wings to be taken into the clinical setting. We also feel we are profiting a great deal by the association with Uppsala University, where I recently began as an associate professor and have also been granted project funding by the SciLifeLab pharmaceutical platform, which is giving our young research group new strength,” says Mangsbo.
Puts value on entrepreneurship
Right now, Mangsbo divides her time between Uppsala University and Ultimovacs, the company that recently bought the drug development operations of Immuneed, the company Mangsbo started in 2014. Immuneed still operates as a niched service company that gives the industry an opportunity to study how potential biological drugs interact with other substances, including proteins and cells in human blood. The business is based on development of a method to keep blood circulating outside the body, a service that is in high demand.
“My time in the pharmaceutical industry before I returned to academia was incredibly worthwhile. I built new networks, deepened my understanding of corporate conditions and, more than anything, gained insight into how highly I value entrepreneurship. The years with Immuneed are part of why I call myself an entrepreneur, and with a base in wide-ranging research, I hope to lay the foundations for additional companies,” says Mangsbo.
Wide research focus
The research team’s online home indicates a wide focus. The website reports on the development and validation of immunotherapies and cancer vaccines, as well as advanced research related to bladder cancer. The members of the group represent a heterogeneous mix of complementary areas of expertise and, hardly surprisingly, their sights are set far beyond the walls of their own lab.
“We want to contribute to new collaborations across departmental and faculty lines and researcher and consultant physician Gustav Ullenhag and I have formed the Immuno-Oncology Uppsala Network (IOUN) to further strengthen the ties between Uppsala’s preclinical and clinical activities. If we can also further develop our partnership with the industry, we will give our selves very good conditions for continued success.”
Better diagnostics are needed
The group already has solid networks of contacts abroad, especially in the Netherlands and the UK. Together – in spite of their key advances – they are facing several major challenges: The hopes of an immunotherapeutic path to making cancer a chronic disease depend on better diagnostics that determine in advance what effects the treatments may have on individual patients. At the same time, the field must have the courage to look beyond what already works and develop therapies for the cancer diseases that current medicine is unable to cure.
“It is going to be expensive, but our field is working under increasingly favourable conditions and I believe that we will have the tools within five years to determine who can benefit from immunotherapy. Add another decade, and I hope we will have more types of biological pharmaceuticals in medicine, such as oncolytic virus therapies, new cancer vaccines and an establishment of multi-functional antibodies. It’s easy to be enthusiastic as an experimental clinical immunologist right now, and Uppsala is clearly establishing itself as the right city for us to be in. Investments in the production of biological pharmaceuticals, such as the Testa Center, and our own efforts with new courses are key reasons for that,” says Mangsbo.