Funded Science Q&A – Matthias Piesche on Crowdfunding Cancer Research

Funded Science Q&A – Matthias Piesche on Crowdfunding Cancer Research
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This post presents an interview with Dr. Matthias Piesche, a Denmark-based biomedical scientist who is currently crowdfunding a cancer research project that could lead to new immunotherapies for melanoma and other types of cancer. Oncology is one of the hottest areas for science crowdfunding, and it’s fascinating to get the inside scoop on how and why cutting-edge biomedical researchers are choosing to crowdfund their research. You’ll want to read this if you’re thinking about crowdfunding your own work.

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Q: Can you tell us a bit about your scientific background?

A: I am a cancer immunology scientist. After graduating in Goettingen, Germany, I moved to Boston to work at the prestigious Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard Medical School. I worked there for 7 years with Prof. Glenn Dranoff, a leader in cancer cell vaccines and tumor immunology.

Q: What drew you to cancer research?

Since I started to study biology I was interested in cancer. First it was more about why cancer arises, what makes a cell switch from a healthy cell to a cancer cell. However, I soon switched to cancer immunology because I wanted to help to find better treatments and involving the patient’s own immune system in the treatment was the best option in my opinion.

Q: What is your vision for the future of cancer therapies?

When I started in cancer immunology a lot of people didn’t believe in it anymore. The first clinical trials failed and it didn’t look promising. However, I thought that we were only at the beginning of the journey, e.g., regulatory cells, which suppress the immune system, had just been discovered. That showed that the regulation of the immune system is more complex than had been thought, and just giving some immune stimulating drugs would not lead to a cure, particularly since over-activation can cause auto-immune diseases. For me that meant we had to learn more how the immune system is regulated and also how it interacts with the tumor itself.

My approach will activate the patient’s own immune system directly to detect all tumor cells…

Hard work and few years later, we now see the first successful treatments with the checkpoint inhibitors – checkpoint proteins like PD-1 and CTLA-4 act as a kind of brake on the immune system and if you remove this brake the system can become fully activated. Antibodies against this “brake” (PD-1 and CTLA-4) recently got approved for metastatic melanoma. Clinical trials in other tumor entities are also showing promising results. Another approach is the chimeric antigen receptor (CAR). CARs are engineered receptors that recognize surface proteins on the tumor cell. Once recognized, they destroy the tumor cell. Early clinical trials in B cell malignancies have demonstrated potent clinical efficacy.

And this is just the beginning; there are a lot of other promising ideas under investigation. However, since each tumor is different we have to personalize the treatments for each patient’s need. That means we have to identify the genetic markers of the tumor to give the patient the best treatment option. Additionally, we have to combine different therapeutic strategies to decrease the possibility that the tumor can escape the treatment. At the end, I think that a combination of chemical drugs combined with immunotherapies will be the key to curing cancer patients.

Q: Why did you decide to crowdfund your project at Aarhus University?

Traditional funding agencies like the NIH have reduced their budget over the past 8 years to fund scientific research. Most of the proposals get turned down and the few lucky ones receive only a smaller amount compared to previous years. Therefore, a lot of promising research is delayed or never will get funded.

Additionally, scientists in their 30s have a much lower chance of getting one of the precious grants. If you look at the young scientists who received the leading NIH research grant, RO1, between 1983 and 2010, you can see a really worrying decline from 18% (1983) to 3% (2010). Furthermore, scientists older than 65 years get as twice as many research grants as scientists below age 36. Therefore, the options for young scientists like me are limited and crowdfunding is an option to get funded.

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