Half of the total Dutch production value in Life Sciences & Health (around ten billion euros) is accounted for by the province of North Brabant, a recent report commissioned by the Brabant Development Fund BOM showed. Biotech, in particular, is growing rapidly: the number of new establishments has grown by 43% since 2014 and the number of jobs in this industry has doubled. Today, we take a closer look at one of the examples of this trend: Glycostem.
Roughly, there are three ways to fight cancer. Best known at the moment is chemotherapy, a chemical treatment that unfortunately kills good cells and bad cells at the same time. It has so many unwanted side effects that some experts argue that nowadays it wouldn’t even receive approval as a treatment. Next, there are biological products. They are a step forwards, but not a cure. Biological immunotherapy can delay the end of therapy for cancer patients, which is already great. The third way could be the most interesting – and promising – one: cellular therapy. It contains the ultimate objective, curing cancer all the way. This is where Glycostem Therapeutics, based on Pivot Park Oss, comes in.
Glycostem is focused on the development of stem cell-derived Natural Killer cells (NK cells) as a medicinal asset in the fight against cancer. NK cells are the new star in the domain of cellular immunotherapy, Glycostem claims. “Due to their tightly regulated ‘natural killing’ of cancer cells, they play an important role in the control and even cure of both solid and hematological malignancies”, a statement on its website says. We had a conversation with CEO Troels Jordansen (56), a businessman with a history in a series of cellular therapy companies all over the world.
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As a chairman, Troels Jordansen was already involved in Glycostem for a couple of years, when he was asked to take on the role as CEO four years ago. “Although I knew the company quite well, this came a bit as a surprise to me. But I didn’t need to think about the offer very long. There were two reasons why I really wanted to help move this company forward, and both were connected to the medical prospects: first, they had proven that cellular medicine could be moved to a level of cellular immunotherapy, and second, their way of using the human body as a source for raw material was something that really inspired me. And it still does.”
Good cells, bad cells
Basically, Glycostem takes good cells to combat bad cells in the body. For now, the focus is on two specific cancers: Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) and Multiple Myeloma (MM). In pre-clinical trials, the company says it has shown remarkable results. The first clinical trial will start in October. Glycostem received approval to do the tests in four European countries. “This is a huge step for us: we can now start treating patients. This is what’s driving all of us: see patients live on, who otherwise may have died.”
“You can hardly imagine a world without cancer, but yes, we want to prove that treatment can become a reality. This is our mission.”Troels Jordansen
From there, Jordansen wants to move to other cancers, including solid tumors. “Cancer statistics are cruel. If we start making progress in AML and MM, we can start making progress in other cancers later. And in fifteen to twenty years time there will actually be hope for people who would otherwise have died.” Marketing wise, this is also an important step for the company. “The solid tumors represent a market that is ten times bigger than that of blood cancers. To give you an idea: US insurance companies now pay up to $450,000 per treatment.”
In pre-clinical cell line tests, Jordansen says Glycostem has already shown that NK cells will have an effect on solid tumors as well. “In early 2021, we will initiate clinical trials at UMC Amsterdam. We will be generating genetically manipulated NK-cells which will include a target. So if you have breast cancer, the NK-cell will go to the tumor, stay there, and step by step eat away this cancer. Can you imagine?”
Jordansen is careful not to use the claim that this will ultimately cure cancer. “Still, we have an opportunity to make a dent in the universe, to rephrase Steve Jobs. You can hardly imagine a world without cancer, but yes, we want to prove that treatment can become a reality. This is our mission.”
“The NK-cell will go to the tumor, stay there, and step by step eat away this cancer. Can you imagine?”Troels Jordansen
In the past years, Glycostem was able to raise 35 million euros in equity, grants, and other deals. The company now employs 45 people, it owns a State-of-the-Art cleanroom and other fit-for-purpose facilities at the Pivot Park campus. Still, fulfilling the ultimate dream is not yet a done deal. “We have to be realistic, our success still depends on factors which we cannot control completely. To name some, Glycostem could get strong competitors, from Asia or the US for example. At this point, we don’t see them yet, but we will have to be aware of that. Also, new technology may someday be developed; a technology that might be cheaper, faster, or just more efficient. This will not happen overnight though, so we’re not very nervous about that. And finally, we might run out of money. If, for example, investors at a certain point decide to put their money in vaccines instead of cellular therapy, this could immediately affect us. Again, we don’t have any signals that this is happening, but it’s something we will have to be aware of.”
In the meantime, Glycostem is working towards the clinical trial initiation and, hopefully, the first real-life proof of a working therapy in the next 24 months or so. “Our facilities in Pivot park help us reach those goals. We are part of a tradition and a community that understands what we are doing. Our employees learn from other companies, things come together. Because of our growth plans, we may someday need to move just outside the campus, but for now, this is the perfect place to be.” It doesn’t prevent Jordansen to look for collaborations elsewhere either: there are strong ties with the Amsterdam UMC, and Glycostem is also part of strong European networks. “Teaming up means building your power together.”
Troels Jordansen is convinced that every step Glycostem takes is bringing the world closer to the ultimate goal, a cure for cancer. Next milestone: the first results from the patients in the clinical tests that will start later this year. “Rest assured that we will all be delighted and relieved the moment we get proof of patients surviving thanks to our therapy.”
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