Ketil Widerberg, General Manager at Oslo Cancer Cluster, opened the meeting on intelligent and personalized algorithms to prevent cancer 20 September 2018.

American tech and Norwegian health data

Combining country scale population data with world class computer systems and algorithms will push the boundaries of precision medicine.

This is a story about the unique American-Norwegian collaboration that combines the best health data with the most powerful computers in a pioneer project run by Cancer Registry of Norway and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Data to screen cancer 
The ongoing project was initiated after a talk on tech between the General Manager of Oslo Cancer Cluster and a Senior Scientist from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Some months later, in San Francisco, a meeting room was filled with some of the world’s best minds on cancer and technology. The Norwegians knew cancer and the Americans knew computing. The outcome was unknown. 

They identified a concrete challenge. Can we see patterns in data to screen cancer more precisely?

The quest resulted in a successful cooperation between Lawrence Livermore and the Cancer Registry in January 2016 where a team from the Cancer Registry started the first project on cervical cancer. If successful, they would potentially identify and screen high risk patients earlier and leave the low risk patients unburdened. 

Now there are two ongoing projects, one on cervical cancer and one on multitask learning for cancer. The goal is to make predictions more accurate and improve precision medicine. 

– If successful we can potentially identify and screen high risk earlier and leave the low risk unburdened. The individual and social impact of such a strategy is significant. This may be the reason why Joe Biden mentioned details from this project at a UN Assembly last year, Widerberg said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden led the American cancer initiative known as the Cancer Moonshot Blue Ribbon Panel. Two years ago, when the collaborative project between Norway and the USA had just started, the Blue Ribbon Panel released a report describing ten transformative research recommendations for achieving the Cancer Moonshot’s ambitious goal of making a decade’s worth of progress in cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment in just 5 years.

One of the ten recommendations was to expand use of proven cancer prevention and early detection strategies.

The major research questions
– One of the major research questions right now is How do we design the optimal screening programs? Another is how to actually take advantage of the registry data that we have, said Giske Ursin, Director of the Cancer Registry of Norway.

In Norway, and similarly in the other Nordic countries, we have registries on various diseases, pregnancy/births, vaccinations, work history/unemployment, income and much more. We have data sets dating from the 1950s. That is unique in the world. 

– If you look at enough data, you can find interesting links that can be explored in the clinical world or elsewhere. For instance; how do other diseases affect cancer diseases? We need international expertise to cover areas we are not experts on ourselves, she said, showing a picture of one of the super computers at Lawrence Livermore.

Cancer and national security
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a national security laboratory and part of the U.S Department of Energy. The laboratory has over 5000 employees, of which at least half are engineers and researchers.

– We have the mandate from the government to push the forefront on subjects like bio security. Precision medicine is alined with the bio security mission, but it is even more relevant to the super computing research mandate. What are the next types of problems that will move this forward? Biomedical data complexity. That is why we are in this, Ana Paula de Oliveira Sales from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory said in her presentation. 

Some ingredients of the project on cervical cancer is to improve cancer outcome prediction by combining disparate cancer types. The preliminary results are encouraging.

 

Break down barriers
John-Arne Røttingen, CEO of the Research Council of Norway, gave a talk on how collaborations between the Nordic countries and other countries are important for population based clinical research and health research.

– Personalized medicine is full of promise and we want to contribute to this progress, but we cannot do this only with our data. We have to collaborate with other countries and with different fields of research, he said.

One important country in that respect is of course the USA.

Kenneth J. Braithwaite, U.S Ambassador to Norway, talked about the opportunities with the Norwegian databases in a meeting in the Oslo Cancer Cluster innovation park 20 September 2018.

— I have learned the past few years that data is king, and we need to wrap our arms around this. I think there is a responsibility from the governments to begin to break down the barriers and truly find a cure to cancer. That’s what we are up against, said U.S. Ambassador to Norway Kenneth J. Braithwaite, who is Rear Admiral of United States Navy (Retired).

— As we say in the Navy, full speed ahead!

Cancer Innovation Pitched to Investors

A full house presented itself when Inven2 pitched 8 of their most promising cancer research projects at Oslo Cancer Cluster Incubator June 12th.

In total approximately 60 people gathered inside Oslo Cancer Cluster Innovation Park, and among the participants several experienced investors from other cancer projects.

— I’m positively surprised that so many potential and experienced investors found their way here today, commented Ole Kristian Hjelstuen, CEO at Inven2.

The event was the second in line of Inven2’s new pitching strategy, were they open up their projects at an early stage for potential investors and entrepreneurs with the will to transform the research into working companies.

— This shows that pitching is a good way to spread the word on the potential of our portfolio. The event today strengthens my belief that financing for our projects will be easier in the future, said Hjelstuen.

Eight Potential Treatments and Companies
Norway is among the very best when it comes to cancer research. Norwegian research has created top notch companies like Algeta, Nordic Nanovector, Ultimovacs and Zelluna Immunotherapy. Tuesdays  pitch proves that many more are on the horizon.

The eight-project presented at OCC Incubator are all exciting innovations that need financial backing and entrepreneurship to commercialize. The common denominator is a focus on modern treatments like immunology or precision medicine that are emerging as a result of what has been labelled “a breakthrough in cancer treatment” in later years.

Presentations of all eight projects available here.

The projects presented:

  • Tankyrase inhibition in cancer therapy
  • A new drug against Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML)
  • Autologous anti-CD20 TCR-engineered T-cell therapy for recurrent Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
  • Lymphocyte Booster – Lymphocyte boosting growth medium for Adoptive Cell Therapy
  • CD37 CAR for cancer immunotherapy
  • IL-15 Immunotherapy – Fusion protein for immunotherapy of solid tumors
  • Backscatter: A communication technology enabling colon-cancer screening
Simone Mester is 25 and already well on her way as a researcher. Her we see her working in her lab. Photo: Elisabeth Kirkeng Andersen.

Enjoying a Meteoric Career as a Researcher

Former Ullern upper secondary school student Simone Mester is enjoying a meteoric career as a researcher. Her research is aimed at making cancer drugs more efficient by getting them to stay longer in the body. But how did she end up here, and what advice does she have for upper secondary school students who are about to choose what educational path to take?

Simone Mester is 25 years old. Before studying molecular biology and being taken on as a researcher at the University of Oslo (UiO), she took natural science subjects at Ullern upper secondary school. She was one of the first students to be offered a place on a work placement programme under the auspices of Oslo Cancer Cluster. Her placement was at the Institute of Clinical Medicine where she worked at both the Department of Tumor Biology and the Department of Radiation Biology.

But choosing molecular biology after upper secondary school was not an easy choice.

‘I felt unsure at the time. I remember thinking a lot about what jobs would be available to me after studying molecular biology. At the same time, the work placements had given me an idea of what it means to work as a researcher. Without that, I would never have dared to choose molecular biology, but would have gone for medicine instead,’ says Simone Mester.

Inspired by Inger
Now, just five years after celebrating her graduation from Ullern, Simone is a researcher at the University of Oslo (Department of Biosciences and Department of Pharmacology) and at Oslo University Hospital (Department of Cancer Immunology) as a member of Jan Terje Andersen and Inger Sandlie’s research group. As chance would have it, Professor Inger Sandlie is a member of the board of Oslo Cancer Cluster and is one of the founders of two enterprises working on a new form of cancer treatment.

‘Inger was one of my lecturers when I took my bachelor’s degree, and I found her very inspiring. She has won several innovation awards and started up businesses. I like working on research that is complex but understandable, and that can form the basis for new and better treatment for serious illnesses,’ says Simone.

So it is no great surprise that Simone’s research project focuses on developing better cancer drugs that stay longer in the body. This enables the drug to kill more cancer cells at lower doses, which means that there are also fewer side effects. This was also the focus of her master’s thesis.

‘My master’s thesis was well received. It opened the door to Inger Sandlie and Jan Terje Andersen’s research group, but chance played a part as well, of course,’ says Simone modestly.

Chance always plays some part, but Simone has no reason to be modest. She is not where she is today as a result of chance alone.

Do not choose the most prestigious fields
Simone is very happy that she did not choose a subject that is better known than molecular biology in terms of status and job opportunities. She encourages upper secondary students to think about what they are good at and what they think is fun when making the hard choice of which direction to take after upper secondary school.

‘I feel that it’s a general problem that so many young people choose high status professions such as law, engineering and medicine, rather than looking at other possibilities. When I tell people that I’m a molecular biologist, they don’t understand what it is, and they don’t ask either, but that’s OK. It’s more important to choose something you think is fun, because that means you will also perform better, even though it’s hard work,’ says Simone.

She adds:

‘And if you think upper secondary school is tough and that you have to work really hard to get good grades, then I can tell you that university is much tougher. That means that it’s really important that you choose a field you’re passionate about,’ says Simone.

She encourages students to talk to their subject teachers about possible career choices.

‘I had several good biology teachers at Ullern, and was considering studying biology. However, Ragni, one of my teachers, was adamant that I should focus on molecular biology since I was particularly good at it,’ says Simone.

She has never regretted her decision. When we ask her what fascinates her about molecular biology, she says:

‘I’m working on such a tiny scale with things like DNA, protein and cells, the building blocks for all life. It’s like a different universe, and, in the beginning, it was hard to understand how I fitted in,’ Simone says.

But after listening to Inger’s lectures and later becoming part of her research team, she is sure about her decision.

The SPARK Winner And the Prime Minister
Simone completed her master’s degree in 2017, by which time the university had already granted her application for innovation funds to continue her research. In addition, she is the youngest person at the university to be accepted for ‘Spark Norway’, an innovation programme at UiO:Life Science, which Oslo Cancer Cluster has helped to establish.

‘My SPARK project is an extension of the project I began during my master’s studies. Of all the proteins I’ve created, I’ve found one with the ability to stay in the blood stream for a very long time. That means that it doesn’t break down so quickly. At the same time, a lab in the Netherlands has developed several new antibodies that can effectively kill cancer cells. The problem is that the antibodies break down quickly in the body. So now we’re trying to combine these antibodies with our unique technology, in the hope of tailoring the next generation of cancer drugs,’ says Simone.

The aim of the SPARK innovation programme is to give young researchers a chance to further develop their own ideas in health-related life science for the benefit of patients and society at large. And Simone’s project really fits the bill in that respect, something a lot of people agree with.

When Prime Minister Erna Solberg opened the new incubator ShareLab at the Oslo Science Park in March this year, a competition was organised between the SPARK participants. And guess who won?

None other than Simone.

Ragni Fet on Simone:

Ragni is a biology teacher at Ullern upper secondary school. Simone Mester was one of her students for all three years: first in natural science and then in biology for two years. Simone was part of Ragni’s first cohort of students nine years ago.

‘I remember Simone very well, and we have actually been in touch after she graduated from Ullern upper secondary school. She struggled a bit to stay motivated while taking her bachelor’s degree in biology, and I talked to her about how that was completely natural and that things would improve at master’s level,’ says Ragni.

And it’s safe to say that the pep talk worked.

Ragni was also the one who recommended Simone to study molecular biology.

‘Many upper secondary school students tend to have a too narrow perspective when it comes to choosing an education and profession. I’m trying to expand their horizons, and I strongly recommended that Simone study molecular biology rather than medicine, which she was considering at the time,’ says Ragni.

She is both pleased and proud that Simone is doing so well as a researcher at the University of Oslo, but she is not the least bit surprised.

‘Simone was very good at biology and really grasped the subject in her final year. I seem to remember giving her the best grade in biology. It’s great that she’s doing so well now. I’m really rooting for her. She has everything it takes to succeed, from intelligence to social skills and work capacity,’ says Ragni.

She is really pleased that the work placement offered to Ullern students was the decisive factor in Simone’s decision to go for a career as a researcher.

‘Students and society at large are very under-informed about what research is and what being a researcher entails. When students praise each other, they say “What are you, a brain researcher or something?”, so they clearly think you have to be extremely clever to become a researcher. Most people find research diffuse, so it’s great that some students can go on work placements and experience first-hand what research is and what a researcher does,’ says Ragni.

Agnete B. fredriksen in front of an illustration of Vaccibody's cancer vaccine technology. Image: Espen Haakstad/OCC.

Creating One Cancer Vaccine Per Patient

Oslo Cancer Cluster member Vaccibody is making headway with their cancer vaccine technology. Now they are ready with clinical trials involving 40 patients in Germany, the first patient is already enrolled.

 

Neoantigens Reveals Cancer Cells
Cancer is famous for its ability to deceive, appearing to the immune system as normal tissue while wreaking havoc on the body. But what if cancer cells could be revealed with subtle but unmistakable characteristics that revealed their true nature?

This revealing clue exists and is called neoantigens, which are mutated (or changed/altered) proteins found only in cancer cells. This is the science behind what Vaccibody and Agnete Fredriksen is currently doing, working to develop vaccines that use neoantigens to help patients’ own immune systems recognize and fight cancer tumors.

— I dare to say that this is quite unique. Each vaccine is thoroughly customized for each individual cancer patient. One vaccine per patient! What we do is conduct biopsies and blood tests to reveal each patient’s unique set of neoantigens and with our technology we have the ability to create a potent individualized vaccine in a relatively short time at reasonable cost, says Agnete B. Fredriksen, President and Chief Scientific Officer at Vaccibody.

Extra Effective With Checkpoint Inhibition
The Vaccibody researchers analyze individual tumor genomes and the patients’ immune systems to select an optimal mix of neoantigens.

— We can do that in a few days because of modern technology. Then we monitor and record the changes we think the immune system will react to and include them in the personalized vaccine. The neoantigen technology is then combined with so called checkpoint inhibitor therapy, which stops tumors from suppressing immune-system activity — to make the vaccine extra effective.

With this personalized medicine approach, each patient receives a unique DNA vaccine, in combination with standard of care checkpoint inhibitor therapy.

Vaccibody has also reached the front page of VG! Read the story here. (In Norwegian)

Clinical Trials in Germany
In the upcoming German clinical trials the vaccine will be tested on patients with locally advanced or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer, melanoma, renal, bladder or head and neck cancer.

— Our technology is very flexible and it can record a number of different changes. The vaccine is therefore applicable as a treatment for many different kinds of cancers. The ones included in the trial are chosen because they contain a high number of mutations and changes creating a good basis to create a neoantigen vaccine.

During the trial Vaccibody will check if the vaccine is safe and without side effects.

— We really think it is based on previous experience with this platform! And we will of course check if the vaccine has the expected immune response and investigate signs of clinical efficacy, says Fredriksen.