Prof. Hanack, you are professor of immunotechnology at the University of Potsdam and have, to a certain extent, revolutionised the production of synthetic antibodies. What spurred you on to do that?
In the decade of the 2000s, synthetic antibodies were still being produced on the basis of two technologies, both of which had been developed in the 1980s. That was a bit like driving to work in a vintage car. That is how it had always been done and people said: “That works pretty good, so why change anything?” One had simply accepted a development period of one year. Total madness. That was what, at the time, spurred us on to develop new, perfected processes. But that was the way things were: new processes are always a long road involving time-consuming work. And this I discovered: it is a road worth travelling down. Our technology for the production of antibodies is a kind of turbocharger, with which we were able to reduce the duration of the procedure from twelve months down to a mere three. We are no longer driving the vintage car, but taking the Tesla instead.
What precisely was it about the previous process for producing antibodies that had bothered you so much?
The amount of time and the laboratory animals that are required. This is still often the way things are done today: one injects antigens into a mouse. The mouse thereupon produces antibodies. After a period of two to three months, splenetic cells are taken from the mouse, some of which produce the antibodies. But the cells then normally only live for seven days. That is, of course, not very good for the production of antibodies. One therefore wants to make the cells immortal, so to speak, and merges them to this end with a type of cancer cell. Then comes the part that takes the most time. Millions of cells are to be found in the spleen that produce an enormous pool of antibodies. And now the task is to discover the right antibodies and the corresponding cell. That is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. With the traditional process, this search can last up to four months. After that, the desired antibody still has to be produced, purified and characterised, which requires yet more time.
What precisely is the approach you are adopting to accelerate this process?
One of our approaches drastically reduces the effort required to find the antibody-producing cells, as we have already modified the cells beforehand using a surface marker. It is no longer necessary to tiresomely comb through the pool of antibodies, as these have already been marked and can thus be identified much more quickly and flexibly in the high throughput rate.
You have indicated that, for your antibody production, you would like to refrain from the use of laboratory animals. How will you achieve that?
Our platform technology has already been developed to a point at which we are able to produce antibodies in vitro, in other words, without the need for animal organisms. In this way we are able to accelerate the entire production process still further, reducing it from three months to two weeks. This is truly a whole new way of producing antibodies. That was also the reason why I founded my company new/era/mabs in 2014 to market these technologies and the antibodies. In the meantime, we have obtained patents in Europe and the USA. The interest is great throughout the entire world, both for research institutes and for businesses in the field of diagnostics and pharmaceuticals.
You are currently in Stanford. Why?
The Stanford SPARK programme affords me the possibility to research, network and work on new projects here. The programme supports discoveries from the field of biomedical research that enable promising medical treatments for patients. It is a matter of transferring, in other words, of how the results from science find their way into daily practice and how they are implemented. The programme is part of a strong global network. I had already been a visiting professor in Stanford in 2019 and wanted to return there in 2020. This I had to postpone due to the pandemic and the lockdown. The interest in my research and the technologies for producing antibodies was very great. Many new projects have sprung up, and we have already produced antibodies for working groups and companies in Stanford. This is what I am continuing to do now.
Thanks to the process you have developed, antibodies can now be produced much more quickly. To what extent could these antibodies be deployed to further contain the spreading of the Corona virus?
That is once of the things I am currently working on in Stanford. There is a project with various partners in which a SARS-CoV-2-specific detection system is being developed. This is a major cooperation between Stanford, the Harvard Medical School in Boston and the University in Berkeley. This is about us producing the antibodies for that detection system. In Potsdam we are also integrated in a research project funded by the BMBF (German Federal Ministry for Education and Research), in which we, together with regional businesses, are developing corresponding in vitro diagnostics for the detection of SARS-CoV-2.
Why are you focussing precisely upon detection systems, when there are already a large number of them on the market?
For one thing, the global demand for test systems continues to be great. For another, it is indeed the case that there are a lot of Corona tests on the market, but many of these test systems function in a similar manner. In our consortium we are working on a new method of virus detection that could also be used at home. The evaluation of a PCR test, which is considered to be the gold standard for tests because of its accuracy, still takes between one and two days due to the laboratory evaluation. The aim is that our virus detection method should be able to dispense with PCR and deliver a result within a period of 30 to 40 minutes. Once this system is in place we will have a good tool, also for other viruses. This will not be the last pandemic, I am quite certain about that.
Is it conceivable for you that a medicament with your antibodies will appear on the market?
It is quite possible that our human antibodies, which we have already developed, could have therapeutic potential. That is a completely different application again, however. Due to the regulations, also with regard to efficacy studies, this is a topic that we cannot deal with on our own. We will be requiring major pharmaceutical companies to cooperate on this. This is also in part due to the fact that the antibody itself is only a part of the product. The development of such medicaments always represents a risk for companies. But we are very eager to find out what will become of our antibodies one day.
In the case of vaccines, the RNA technology has proven itself to be extremely efficient. At Fraunhofer IAP, scientists are also researching into medications that are based upon the RNA technology. What would be the advantages of a medicament that functioned on the basis of antibodies?
In the first place, I find the RNA technology very interesting. With the establishment of this method a whole new chapter of active agents has been written and I am very eager to learn of future developments in this area. As far as antibodies are concerned, as part of a medicament they do, at first, have a clear advantage. They are on the spot and able to take effect. The RNA first enters the cell, is read there, and after that a protein is made to combat the viruses. One therefore has to wait longer, before it starts to work. In a case of acute illness, a medicament that uses antibodies can take effect more quickly. But combinations of both are certainly conceivable in the future.
In 2014 you founded the biotech company new/era/mabs in order to market the antibody screening SELMA. To what extent have the structures at the Potsdam Science Park helped you to found your company?
The structures were a great initial help to me. Potsdam Transfer also started up at about the same time. This meant I had a quite specific contact point offering personal advice that helped me found my own company. We also made intensive use of the numerous offers made by Potsdam Transfer – ranging from consultancy to information concerning patents. Appropriate means of funding and possibilities of obtaining important information were also given. That was extremely important for me as a scientist throwing myself into the adventure of founding a company. It was then also clear to me that the company should have its main office in Potsdam-Golm, which today is the Potsdam Science Park.
What, from your point of view, are the advantages of the Potsdam Science Park?
It is a young location. This offers numerous advantages for positioning oneself better. The Potsdam Science Park has a modern flair. And I find it helpful that the University of Potsdam has set up the field of transfer as a third supportive column alongside research and teaching. Not every graduate ends up with a position in the world of science. There just are not enough jobs around for that. So there need to be other possibilities of finding work apart from an academic career.
Do you see learning effects for research that extend beyond the current pandemic?
I most certainly do. The pandemic has shown us that we are helpless at some points. But we have had the opportunity to place ourselves in a good position and arm ourselves for the future, also with regard to more aggressive viruses. That is the hope I have, despite all the bad things that have happened. And then the keyword digitalisation: a lot of people have seen that a Zoom meeting often does the trick. If one is able to also use digital elements, this means more flexibility for all of us. I hope that something of this will remain with us.
Prof. Hanack, thank you for this interview.
This blog and the projects of Standortmanagement Golm GmbH in the Potsdam Science Park are financed by means provided by the European Fund for Regional Development (EFRE) and the Federal State of Brandenburg.
Image Credits: Prof. Dr. Katja Hanack © Universität Potsdam/Tobias Hopfgarten