Proteins are molecules that are produced by living organisms. A very large percentage of all newly approved drugs, for example in cancer therapy, are proteins. A specific class of proteins, antibodies, are produced by our body to fight against viruses and other molecules that are deemed harmful.
In addition to being used as just drugs, antibodies are very important tools in life science research because they can specifically detect other molecules with a very high sensitivity. Making antibodies is, however, not at all straightforward.
“Yes, antibodies can be large in size, but the biggest issue is that the method of developing them is quite labour-intensive, expensive, and time-consuming. The method is so complicated that on an academic level it is rarely done these days,” says Michael Jeltsch, associate professor in pharmaceutical protein drug research. He joined FinPharma, the Finnish platform for pharmaceutical research, at the beginning of August.
The market for antibodies is huge.
“Even if one could capture just 0.01 per cent of that market, it would be profitable and a massive success in Finnish terms. Our idea is to make the whole process of creating antibodies much easier. In fact, we have been making quite good progress. We are not there yet, but we have proof of concept and we have done our first experimental trials. It works. We cannot offer this to others yet, but that is what we are aiming for,” Michael Jeltsch says.
He estimates that it is not impossible to have both the production costs and time cut by 90 per cent with the new method. This would mean that making antibodies for research purposes could be brought back to the academic community, where it originally started.
Vascular biology: Clinical trials are ongoing
Michael Jeltsch has been working on Meilahti Campus for many years conducting groundbreaking vascular biology research in Academy Professor Kari Alitalo’s group. Jeltsch uses genetic diseases as a starting point to understand how the growth of blood vessels and lymphatic vessels is regulated.
Protein research is linked to genetic research because proteins are produced by genes. The genes connected with a certain disease might be known, but the function of these genes often isn’t. Or, indeed, what is going wrong, and why.
“Once the defective gene has been identified, we concentrate on what its molecular function is, how the function is disturbed by the mutation and whether something could be done about it.”
So far, Michael Jeltsch has been involved in developing three drugs that are now in clinical trials. One of them concerns lymphedema, which refers to generalised swelling or swelling of specific tissues. There are many causes for the disease, and several of them are hereditary, but most commonly lymphedema is a side effect of cancer and cancer treatment.
“We are hoping that our first-generation drug works well, but we also already have a mouse-tested second-generation drug ready for pre-clinical trials that should work much better. So we are really hopeful.”
However, developing a drug takes time, and sometimes there are additional obstacles. For example, Michael Jeltsch and his colleagues Sirpa Loukovaara and Kaisa Lehti have a hypothesis about why the anti-angiogenic drug available for proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR), where abnormal blood vessels form at the back of the eye, fails in about 30% of patients.
“If this hypothesis is right, we even have a drug candidate for that. The biggest problem here is the leap from our idea to clinical studies. PDR takes a couple of decades to develop in humans. We cannot do any meaningful experiments because we don’t have an animal model of the condition – mice have a short lifespan of a couple of years, which is not enough to develop the same disease that humans develop. If we had a good animal model, we could confirm – or refute – our hypothesis and proceed to human clinical trials – or not.”
New home base: Viikki
Michael Jeltsch and four members of his multinational team are gradually moving over to Viikki, Biocenter 2. The Covid-19 situation is not making things easier, as new group members have to be properly onboarded and like all laboratory work, the research needs actual contact and supervision.
“I will still be doing some research in Meilahti, so commuting is necessary. And I hope that we can have some shared PhD students between the Faculty of Pharmacy and the Faculty of Medicine. I have previously had PhD students shared between different research programmes in Meilahti, and that has proved a good way to share information.”
Research group Lymphangiogenesis Research and Antibody Development