A new bio-robot
With a new method for modifying antibodies, Philipp Spycher wants to develop drugs that are more stable and, thus, have fewer side-effects.
Isaac Newton is said to have had his “Eureka!” moment when an apple fell on his head. Philipp Spycher had the idea that inspired him in a Key West hotel room in August 2015, when he couldn't sleep and needed to get moving. At the time Spycher, a postdoctoral radiopharmaceutical researcher at the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI, was concerned with the question of how active agents could be bound to antibodies more efficiently. That's because, in combination with an antibody, the active agent can target the diseased cells in the body and, thus, can take effect in the right place. With the conventional method, the active agent is chemically attached to the antibody. This process creates a mixture of different compounds, each of which binds the active ingredient to the antibody at a different site. The mixture is difficult to analyse and can cause serious side-effects. Spycher hit on the idea of pursuing another approach in which, by means of enzymes, the active ingredient can be tacked onto the antibody directly at the optimal site, precisely and without great effort. As a result, these so-called antibody-agent conjugates can be produced more rapidly and at lower cost. Also, drugs made in this way should be better tolerated and more effective.
As a child Philipp Spycher, 34, already had the urge to explore. As a teenager, he read popular science magazines such as Bild der Wissenschaft and Spektrum der Wissenschaft. From this he learned about the revolution that was taking place in life sciences: nanotechnology promised to harness nature with a precision never known before. Spycher was especially fascinated by one idea: nano-robots that destroy cancer cells.
Cancer is an issue in our family, Spycher says. His grandmother and an uncle died from it. After graduation, he studied nanosciences in Basel and biomedical technology at ETH Zurich. In his doctoral research he investigated how molecules could be modified for cell studies with enzymes and, to further this research, he took a postdoctoral job at the Center for Radiopharmaceutical Sciences at PSI.
Without the first class infrastructure, the supportive environment of my group and the great freedom, I would never have been able to realise my idea in this way, Spycher says. In spring 2017, he tested the idea that he had that night in Key West and discovered, surprisingly, that his approach works for all known antibodies and a large number of active agents.
In June, he successfully presented his idea to the jury of the PSI Founder Fellowship. In the coming 18 months he must produce the
proof-of-concept: evidence that his idea, which has been tested in the artificial environment of the laboratory, also shows the desired effect under realistic conditions. Since Spycher is confident in his new method, he intends to found a start-up company before long. For pharmaceutical companies, the start-up will better and more efficiently bind active ingredients to antibodies, but it will also develop its own drugs.
Somehow, I have built a nano-robot after all, Philipp Spycher says.
It's not, however, like any robot I would have imagined when I was 14, but rather a kind of bio-robot that can fight cancer.
Text: Joel Bedetti
From researcher to entrepreneurWith the new Founder Fellowship, the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI gives young researchers the chance to become entrepreneurs. Within 18 months they have to demonstrate the commercialisation potential of their business ideas and draw up an initial business plan. On 8 November 2017, the official ceremony awarding this grant to three researchers took place. The first three prize winners are working on a new pharmaceutical technology, a nano-energy technology, and a neutron detector. UBS supports this initiative with a contribution to the grants.
Because the road from a promising research result to an innovative and commercially viable product is long and rocky, many good ideas die in an early dry stretch. That is why the Paul Scherrer Institute has brought a new funding instrument into being with the Founder Fellowship, an 18-month grant that supports young researchers and engineers of PSI on the entrepreneurial career path, financially as well as with coaching and counselling.
We want to promote entrepreneurship and an entrepreneurial culture at PSI, explains John Millard of the Technology Transfer office.
With the Founder Fellowship, we can embolden talented researchers at PSI to pursue their promising business ideas and found a spin-off.
The Founder Fellowship is endowed with 150,000 Swiss francs per person, which the winner can use for salary, material, or other costs. During the 18 months, the Fellows are given full access to the PSI research facilities. After that, though, they have to leave the Paul Scherrer Institute.
We want to draw a clear line, John Millard says.
In fact, there doesn't have to be either a finished product or a prototype after the Fellowship has run its course; but it must be clear whether or not the technology can be commercialised.As a next step, the researchers would then devote themselves to the search for investors and found a spin-off.
In January, PSI called on its researchers to apply for a Founder Fellowship. During the summer an external expert panel selected, out of the business ideas submitted for the first round of the Founder Fellowship, three winners who were given their Fellowship certificates at a ceremony on 8 November. Convinced of the usefulness of this measure, UBS contributed to the grants. UBS Regional Director Aargau/Solothurn Thomas Sommerhalder explains:
It is already impressive to see what intellectually promising high-tech business ideas are being developed here at PSI. For us it is a central concern to support the development of start-ups in our region, in order to strengthen the business and innovation power of the canton in a sustainable way.
In the new year another round of competition for the Founder Fellowship will be announced.
Our goal is to firmly establish the Founder Fellowship as a funding instrument for budding entrepreneurs at PSI, explains John Millard.