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Destroying cancer cells

For over 15 years, Prof. Thomas Blankenstein and his teams at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) in the Helmholtz Association and at the Berlin Charité have been pursuing the goal of using T cells in cancer therapy. Their vision is a promising one, as T cells are particularly effective ‘killer cells’ of the immune system.

T cells distinguish between ‘foreign’ and ‘self’, i.e. they recognize cells with foreign – viral or bacterial – antigens and destroy them, while ignoring normal cells of the body (tolerance). The latter often include cancer cells which, while they may display unusual patterns of expression compared with healthy cells, typically do not carry any foreign antigens. The team at the MDC has achieved a breakthrough on the crucial question of how human immune tolerance mechanisms can be circumvented and cancer cells made susceptible to T cells. They have established a mouse model with a broad repertoire of human T-cell receptors (TCRs), in which they can stimulate the production of specific human TCRs against cancer cells through immunization with cancer-associated antigens. In this way, the MDC scientists and their colleagues at the Charité have generated a TCR specific for the tumour-associated antigen MAGE-A1. Using so-called adoptive T-cell therapy, this receptor can be smuggled ex vivo into the patient’s T cells, which are then re-administered to them as a cell product. A Phase I clinical trial at the Charité was launched in spring 2020.

Ascenion, together with its technology transfer colleagues at the MDC, has accompanied the start-up project from the outset, progressively expanding the IP basis, extending freedom to operate, and supporting the acquisition of funding. Furthermore, Ascenion, in consultation with the MDC and the Charité, has led the negotiation of licensing, cooperation and equity agreements with T-knife.