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Fighting cancer with alpacas

published by Karen Esser
Dr. Oren Moscovitz | Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces © Dr. Oren Moscovitz

At the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in the Potsdam Science Park, Dr. Oren Moscovitz (Group Leader Biomolecular Systems) is researching novel antibodies to develop valuable new tools that target specific glycan structures on our cell membranes and help fight cancer. To do this, he receives special help from – Alpacas.

Very likely, Dr. Oren Moscovitz is the only scientist at the Potsdam Science Park who, if you were to accompany him on his work for a day, would not take you to his office or a laboratory first, but to a paddock somewhere in Brandenburg. In this paddock, you would meet a small but agile herd of curious alpacas. However, his work has very little to do with animals. Moscovitz is not a zoologist. He works as a group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces (MPIKG) – as a glycobiologist.

The “sugar code” on our cells

Glycobiology deals with the structure, biosynthesis, and function of long and structurally complex sugar chains commonly called “glycans”. Glycans influence a wide range of biological processes, which is why they are interesting from a medical perspective. Moscovitz sees glycobiology as a classic cross-sectional field: “This is where biologists, chemists, and physicians meet.”

His work focuses on so-called targeted glycan therapeutics. These are treatment methods designed to act on the “sugar coat” of cancer cells, for example. Every cell in our body is surrounded by a dense layer of highly diverse sugar structures called the “glycocalyx”. The sugar molecules that form our glycocalyx protrude from the cell surface like tiny antennae. Their function is to pass on information between cells and their surrounding while at the same time being a docking point for unwanted visitors such as parasites, bacteria, and viruses. Unfortunately, cancer cells also exploit their sugar coat to enable their harmful proliferation and even use different glycan structures to evade detection by our bodies’ natural defenses. For glycobiologists, the “glycan code”, that is, the relationship between the structure and function of specific sugar structures on the cell surface, is therefore one of the most complicated languages encoded on our cell membrane. “The functional information hidden in specific glycan structures is far from fully understood,” Moscovitz explains, “Much of it has yet to be deciphered.”

New tools in the fight against cancer

Initially, Moscovitz’s research was primarily about developing new therapies against parasites. Now, he focuses largely on cancer research. The “sugar coat” of cancer cells differs from that of healthy cells at key points. This divergent structure is very important for cancer diagnostics and therapy, he says: “It helps us distinguish healthy from malignant cells.”

Developing therapies that specifically target sugar structures has long been a complex and almost impossible exercise due to the enormous efforts to isolate sufficient amounts of homogenous glycans from natural sources. However, the advent of synthetic glycan production permanently changed the field by enabling access to significant amounts of well-defined synthetic glycans. “This opens up opportunities that we didn’t have before, especially for monoclonal antibodies development,” Moscovitz says. Despite the urgent need for antibodies targeting the sugar layer of cancer cells, however, to date, few of them made it to clinical trials. He wants to change this situation. Together with his team, Moscovitz is therefore working to produce better antibodies and thus add valuable new tools to our “too thin toolbox against cancer,” as he calls it.

Zwei Alpakas © Dr. Oren Moscovitz

The secret of the alpacas

And this is where “his” alpacas come into play: “In the late 1980s, it was discovered that members of the Camelidae family – camels, llamas, alpacas and so on – produce a special kind of antibody.” Compared to “ordinary” human antibodies, they are more stable, soluble, and much smaller, therefore called ‘nanobodies.’ Their unique size allows them to penetrate places on the cell membrane that would otherwise be inaccessible.

To obtain his alpaca nanobodies, Moscovitz and his team regularly visit their animals on an Alpaca farm in the Brandenburg region. There, they administer small amounts of harmless synthetic glycans to the animals to stimulate the formation of the antibodies. After a certain period, the scientists return and draw blood from them, from which they isolate the antibodies. A relatively small blood sample is enough for this, Moscovitz says: “We never take more than 200-300 millilitres. That’s about half of what a human blood donor gives for medical purposes.” When he talks about it, he can’t help but joke a little: “To the animals, we’re just a couple of very strange guests. Basically, they hardly notice our presence. Shortly after he have taken our blood sample, they prance back across the pasture and return to paying no attention to us whatsoever.”

From research to practice

Due of their importance to their work, the alpacas have become something of the unofficial mascots of Moscovitz and his team. As a result, their Potsdam Max Planck Institute website features many photos showing the scientists together with the animals in their pasture or eating alpaca-shaped cakes. This humor, however, is based on genuine gratitude. For Moscovitz, the “gift” he receives from the alpacas also holds a personal value: “About three years ago, there was also a case of cancer in my family,” he says. It was this personal experience, he says, that really made him realize how limited our options for cancer treatment continue to be: “Even today, in 2021.”

That’s why he’s working on translating his research findings into practical applications. Together with Tacalyx GmbH, a spin-off of the MPIKG, Moscovitz ensures that antibodies which prove particularly promising make it into clinical trials as quickly as possible, so that they can be used to develop new kinds of therapies. He is very straightforward on his motivation: “In science, studies proclaim that they have defeated cancer every two weeks or so. However, the reality is unfortunately different.” He refuses to accept this for his own research: “I want my findings to reach the doctors who are supposed to work with them, and, of course, the patients who depend on them, too.”

Alpaka © Dr. Oren Moscovitz

A place for ideas

The Potsdam Science Park ecosystem plays a major role in the success of his work, Moscovitz is certain. “Not just because there are so many alpaca farms around here,” he jokes. Of course, the infrastructure at the location is an important criterion, he says. But the special atmosphere in the park, which is characterized by personal and professional exchange among scientists and companies, is just as decisive to him. “In lectures, you learn something about the work of others. Later you might get into a conversation with them. Then, suddenly, you find yourself discussing some completely new and fascinating ideas.”

He himself has also benefited from this, he says, recounting an anecdote: Once, he was lucky enough to hear a bioinformatician speak about a topic which he admits is otherwise rather foreign to him. Later, he met this colleague for coffee. At first, they just exchanged a little small talk and talked shop. However, after a short time, they began to discuss very specific bioinformatic solutions to some of the challenges Moscovitz was facing in his work at the time – and soon enough, they implemented them together. “The best ideas,” Moscovitz knows: “come up in the cafeteria, over a cup of coffee.” Or perhaps in a paddock in Brandenburg.

This blog and the projects of Standortmanagement Golm GmbH in the Potsdam Science Park are funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the state of Brandenburg.

Image credits:
Portrait Dr. Oren Moscovitz, Quelle: Dr. Oren Moscovitz
Two Alpacas © Dr. Oren Moscovitz
Alpace © Dr. Oren Moscovitz