Uppsala researcher gets multimillion-krona grant to develop new cancer treatments

19 November 2019

Magnus Essand, professor of gene therapy.

Hello Magnus Essand, professor of gene therapy and recipient of SEK 13.5 million from the Swedish Cancer Society, to develop new immunotherapies for brain tumours, leukaemia and lymphoma.

How will you invest the contribution?
For us, it’s an extremely significant grant. It includes, first, 4.5 million kronor for preclinical development of new immunotherapies for patients with brain tumours. Second, there’s 9 million kronor that we’ll use to develop a viral vector for engineering CAR T-cells, and then test it in treating some 15 leukaemia and lymphoma patients.

How significant are immunotherapies for cancer care?
The past decade has essentially been an uninterrupted success story for immuno-oncology. Right now, the research is making lots of minor advances in the form of adjustments and refinements of available therapies. But the more treatments we develop, the greater the care services’ capacity to cure various tumour diseases, of course.

Is it possible to create an immunotherapy that cures all cancers?
I find it hard to imagine that kind of major, rapid breakthrough. Some patients respond to a particular treatment; others don’t. Basically, it involves activating the tumour’s “immune landscape” and tricking the body’s immune system into seeing and attacking the tumour as a foreign organism. That’s something we’re improving in small but important steps, one at a time.

How close is your own group to contributing to new treatments?
Right now, we’re completing a phase 2 study with CAR T-cells against leukaemia and lymphoma developed by Angelica Loskog, Gunilla Enblad and others. We’ve treated 35 patients at Uppsala University Hospital. So far, half of them are responding positively; some are helped and, we hope, will be cured in the long term. A global fundraising initiative (the Oncolytic Virus Fund)  is helping us test one of our tumour-destroying viruses, but here we’re still at such an early stage that I’ll state that the results look promising, and leave it at that.

Does Swedish cancer research have the necessary funding to take a therapy all the way to care?
My colleagues Anna Dimberg, Bengt Westermark, Elisabetta Dejana and I were recently awarded 31.5 million kronor by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. And the Swedish Cancer Society’s latest award was the biggest so far, so our field is certainly in favour. But completing a phase 3 clinical trial takes resources that no grant can cover, so collaboration with industry is needed somewhere along the way.