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.

The second reason for choosing Aarhus University is because my wife got a position at the University. So, I started to look for possibilities in Aarhus. Prof. Jens Overgaard, the head of the Department of Experimental Clinical Oncology showed enthusiasm and interest in my research idea and offered me laboratory space. However, he doesn’t have extra funding. That’s why I decided to use crowdfunding.

Q: Measurable impact is an increasing focus for philanthropic donors. Who will your research help the most? Why is your approach going to have a bigger positive impact than other projects?

Even though there are a lot of new approaches in cancer research, we still need to improve treatments. Too many cancer patients die. My research idea will combine standard cancer treatments with immunotherapy.

My approach is similar to a vaccine – an individual’s immune system gets stimulated to develop immunity to its own cancer cells. Standard therapies kill tumor cells mostly through a mechanism that is called apoptosis. This type of cell death leads to immune inactivation and the remaining tumor cells that survive the treatment will not be recognized by the immune system. The consequence is that the tumor can grow back. My research idea can reverse the inhibitory effect and additionally prime the immune system specifically to the patient’s own tumor. Tumor cells that survive the original treatment can then be recognized and killed by the immune cells.

When I hit the €15,000 milestone, I will have enough money to analyze which antibody is the most promising one for testing in the third phase.

Why do I think this treatment idea is superior to other treatment strategies? Some strategies use only one or few tumor-specific markers to activate the immune system. However, tumors are very heterogenous. Not all of the tumor cells might express the tumor marker and therefore, can escape this kind of treatment.

Another promising strategy are checkpoint inhibitors. They have shown some really encouraging improvements but they are less specific. The best results for these inhibitors will be in combination with other therapies.

My approach will activate the patient’s own immune system directly to detect all tumor cells and not just the tumor cells that express the tumor markers. Therefore, no tumor cell will be able to escape because it doesn’t have the specific marker that the other strategies used as a target. Additionally, it could be combined with other therapies like the checkpoint inhibitors, resulting in a strong anti-tumor immune response that leads to a high survival of the cancer patients.

Q: If you get the funding you need, how do you see your project and career progressing?

With the funding I will be able to analyze the novel strategy. The next step would be to test the strategy first in pre-clinical models and then in clinical trials with cancer patients. The final goal is that this research idea will become a novel treatment for cancer patients.

I believe that bioengineering makes it possible to develop new therapies to diverse diseases where so far we haven’t been able to develop a potent therapy, e.g., the core of my strategy lies in a novel approach to creating therapeutic antibodies. This approach will also help to develop antibodies against difficult targets where so far it hasn’t been possible to create antibodies through the traditional strategies. I see an opportunity for this approach to be used in creating antibodies against Ebola, HIV, and other viral infections where it is difficult to create a potent vaccine. Another field could be in the treatment of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

My career goal is to use bioengineering to develop new tools for diseases that are difficult to treat. Getting funded through the crowdfunding campaign will help to establish myself in this field.

Q: Have you applied for other sources of funding?

The crowdfunding campaign will give me the chance to start the project. However, since I will use the money solely for the research I will work for free during this time. Fortunately, my wife is working and we can afford my not having a salary at the moment. Since this is not an optimal situation I am still applying for other sources of funding. Currently, I have applied for the Danish Cancer Society, the Aarhus University internal grant, and the Danish Council for Independent Research. And I am always looking for more opportunities.

Q: What happens if you can’t raise the money you need to run the project?

My research campaign has different milestones. I don’t need to have the whole amount to begin the research. I can begin working at Prof. Overgaard’s laboratory as soon as I reach the first milestone, which is about €2,500 – €3,000. I would then need about €7,000 to make all the different antibodies. When I hit the €15,000 milestone, I will have enough money to analyze which antibody is the most promising one for testing in the third phase.

This model of fundraising enables me to generate preliminary data.

This model of fundraising enables me to generate preliminary data. The more money I raise the more data I can generate. With preliminary data I also have a much better chance of getting funded through the traditional funding agencies.

In summary, every single Euro will be spent on the research and will lead to the progress of the project; no money will be wasted if I don’t raise the full amount.

Q: What would you tell other scientists who may be thinking about crowdfunding their research?

I think it is a novel idea for getting additional funding and scientists should definitely try it. However, they have to be aware that this takes a lot of time. First you need an audience. The earlier you start to increase your network the easier it will be to spread the word for your campaign when you actually launch it. After going public you have to continue to promote your research proposal, answering questions, concerns, and suggestions of the potential backers. It is a full-time job. If you are willing to work hard for it you can succeed.

Q: If you could change one thing in the current funding system for biomedical research, what would it be?

The thing that bothers me the most is that the reviewers look who you are, how much you have published, and with whom you have worked. In my opinion, this it not important for the actual research proposal. The reviewers should focus solely on the project itself. Therefore, they only should see the research project without any information about the scientist. This would also increase the chances of young scientists of competing with established professors. In this case, only the interesting and promising proposals would get funded and not because of applicants’ connections.

Q: Any last thoughts?

I want to thank all the backers who have already generously supported me through direct donations or through spreading the word. Thank you to my family and friends, my former coworkers and especially to all the people who don’t know me. Their trust in my research project to find a better cure for cancer patients means a lot to me and I will do everything to make this research a success. Together we can find a cure for cancer so that one day a cancer diagnosis is not seen a death sentence anymore.

You can read more about Matthias’ research and donate to support his project HERE.

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There are 2 comments. Add yours.

  1. Alfonso Carreon

    Hi, I like it so much this post since crowdfunding have been an idea I have had around my mind for a while. I work in Mexico on neuroendocrinolgy field focused on the role of thyroid hormones on neurodevelopment. After finishing my PhD here in Mexico I did a postdoc at Mass General Hospital at Boston. I was full of hope that with this background coming back to my country would get more chances for a grant but apparently the reduction of budget from government for scientific projects is a global problem such as Dr. Piesche said affecting younger researchers. So, different ways to get funds specially from public donors sounds like a good option, however that involves people not so young like me, should re-learn how to make a whole mindset to show and speak to people who wouldn’t be technically informed about the questions we want to make our research on. Apart from that I think there are some other ethical concerns we should discuss as scientific community first to give this new perspective a push specially from people who are looking for consolidating their careers.

  2. Dear Alfonso, very good comment. I agree with you about the concerns. Layman can’t distinguish if a project is a good one or very bad. I think the best option to solve this problem is if universities themselves create a crowdfunding website where people can donate to specific projects that they are interested in. Additionally, the donated money is tax-deductible.
    There are some concerns though. Basic research might not be considered by the donors. They would probably be more interested in biomedical research. However, as long as the university makes it clear to not prefer one over the other, and support both research, crowdfunding can be a great tool to secure additional funding for research.

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