In a few years Aprea hopes to have developed a drug to treat ovarian cancer.
Klas Wiman is one of the company’s founders, and he draws a clear distinction
between the roles of researcher and entrepreneur.
A key element of the body’s defences against cancer – protein p53 – was discovered at the end
of the 1970s. It was dubbed “the guardian of the genome” because it is able to activate damaged cells’ propensity to self-destruct. The absence of functioning p53 increases the risk of cancer. One of the reasons p53 stops working is a gene mutation found in half of all cancer tumors.
“The discovery of the mutation attracted a lot of attention towards the end of the 90s, and it was at that point that I started my research in the field. We wanted to see whether we could find a molecule that could kill the mutated cancer cells and get p53 working again,” explains Wiman.
The research group, that included Galina Selivanova and Vladimir Bykov, were soon also able to identify a molecule with the relevant characteristics. The group realized early on that they were on track to develop a new drug and therefore approached KI Innovation for help.
Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry’s interest in the discovery was muted. The findings were out of step with prevailing trends in drug development, which at the time tended to focus
inhibiting various proteins in the body. “We wanted to recreate functionality in a damaged protein instead. An entirely new approach for the industry, but we were convinced that it would work.” Initial clinical trials took place in 2009, and soon showed promising results. KI Development made the initial investment in the company, and when Industrifonden also provided investment support, the company started to grow. Early on, the research group was advised to avoid publishing their results. Advice that the team ignored.“We’re researchers first, and we need to show our results to progress. Furthermore, I believe that robust results from established researchers puts the company on a firm footing,” he says.
“It’s important to ensure that our research is made accessible, and commercialisation is the way
to reach patients. At the same time, my roles as an objective researcher and entrepreneur must
be kept apart,” he adds. “You can’t blindly believe that everything’s going to work: you need to continue to be objective and critically review your results.” Today, Aprea is conducting several clinical trials, the most advanced of which is focused on supporting ovarian cancer treatment. Progress is extremely promising, Wiman says, who has been able to continue doing what enjoys most: academic research. “We’re now looking at a new direction where we’re attempting to affect the gene differently. We’re back at a very early phase with this and haven’t even reached animal testing. But I love it, and it’s where I can contribute most.”
The history behind the discovery
p53 was discovered at the end of the 1970s by several researcher. One of them was Sir David Lane who is currently at Karolinska Institutet where he heads a research group
in the field. He is also Chief Scientist at Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research.
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