From PhD research to cancer treatment: Lucas Czentner does it all
PhD candidate puts his experience in industry into practice
By starting a company, PhD candidate Lucas Czentner makes great strides towards realising clinical trials of a new cancer treatment. Czentner worked on the treatment, a form of immunotherapy, during his PhD project at the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Utrecht University. The treatment was found to be very effective against aggressive forms of cancer in mice. The PhD candidate’s main goal is to make a positive impact on the lives of many patients by eventually bringing the treatment to the market.
Czentner experienced how cancer strongly affected the lives of several people around him. Two of his cousins got cancer and one of them died at a young age. Czentner: “The knowledge, potential and uniqueness that are lost when somebody dies of cancer, I really feel that.” In addition, Czentner’s father suffered strongly from the chemotherapy that he received to treat his cancer. Czentner: “Chemotherapy is very toxic. It leads to pain and damage to the body.”
The researcher worked in the pharmaceutical industry for several years following his master’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences. His personal experiences with cancer motivated the researcher to return to academia and to do a PhD, as Czentner realised that only doing a PhD in academia would give him the freedom and flexibility to develop a novel, innovative treatment.
He decided to focus his PhD research on cancer immunotherapy, with treatments that rely on activating or suppressing the patient’s immune system. This offers chances for less toxic treatments and more durable antitumor responses.
Czentner’s novel treatment approach relies on inducing the presence of active immune cells within tumors. He tested the treatment in mice with a very challenging type of cancer, one that is currently impossible to treat. Czentner: “It turned out to work very well: we saw a very strong tumor growth inhibition and the mice lived considerably longer.” In a second experiment, mice with a different aggressive form of cancer were given the novel treatment in combination with an existing therapy (based on ‘immune checkpoint inhibitors’, see foldout).
This combined treatment was able to cure a considerable proportion of the mice. What is more, the animals that were cured were found to be able to fight the cancer cells when administered at a later point in time, showing a durable antitumor response. Czentner points out that, despite these promising results, there is no guarantee that the treatment is effective and safe in humans.
The PhD candidate cannot yet elaborate on the exact details of the treatment as the patent that is submitted is not yet approved. He explains why a patent is necessary. Czentner: “It is my mission to go for clinical trials, studies in cancer patients. This involves multiple steps that we are now starting to take. First, the early treatment results obtained in animals need to be patented. Then, after receiving the license for the patent from the university, as the licensee of the patent, you can start a company to obtain private funding. This funding is needed to produce the medicine under very strict conditions regarding its pharmaceutical quality. There is also some public funding for this, but to be eligible you usually need co-funding from private partners.”
It is my mission to go for clinical trials, studies in cancer patients. This involves multiple steps that we are now starting to take.
“These first steps take about two to three years. Then we plan to study the effects in an early small-scale clinical trial and subsequently work together with a large pharmaceutical company to do the final steps: the larger scale clinical trials and, if the treatment turns out to be effective and safe, the commercialization of the treatment.”
Czentner emphasizes that his company is merely a vehicle for obtaining the necessary funding. He explains that universities provide the appropriate environment for creating new treatments, but that they normally do not have the facilities and expertise for performing the late-stage studies required for starting clinical trials and for bringing a new treatment to the market.
I am not starting a company for the money, I am trying to cure people and to improve people’s lives.
But if the treatment eventually makes it to the market, the university will receive royalties according to the conditions mentioned in the license agreement with his company. Czentner: “I am not starting a company for the money, I am trying to cure people and to improve people’s lives.”
Lucas Czentner recommends Master students who think about doing a PhD, to first gain some experience outside academia.
Czentner’s experience in the pharmaceutical industry prior to the start of his PhD study turned out to be very valuable in the entire process. While developing the new treatment, he already kept in mind how it would be produced and applied. For instance, he made sure that the new treatment is relatively easy to produce.
That is why he recommends Master students that think about doing a PhD, to first gain some experience outside academia. Czentner: “When you work in the ‘real world’, you get to know the problems that people and society are having. Then you can come back to science, with better social and management skills, to try to solve these problems.”
Are you employed by Utrecht University in an academic position and are you thinking about starting your own business? You can find the steps you need to follow and the support services that are available to you in the guide From Researcher to Academic Entrepreneur.