Posted in | Medical Robotics

New Bio-Robot can Destroy Cancer Cells

With a novel method for modifying antibodies, Philipp Spycher aims to develop drugs that show more stability and, hence, have fewer side effects.

Philipp Spycher, winner of a PSI Founder Fellowship. In his hands he is holding the molecular model of an antibody. (Photo: Paul Scherrer Institute/Mahir Dzambegovic)

Isaac Newton is said to have had his “Eureka!” moment while an apple fell on his head. Philipp Spycher had the thought that inspired him in a hotel room in Key West in August 2015, when he was not able to sleep and wanted to get moving. At the time Spycher, a postdoctoral radiopharmaceutical researcher at the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI, was interested in the question of how active agents could be more efficiently bound to antibodies.

That is because the active agent, together with an antibody, can target the diseased cells in the body and, hence, can take effect in the right place. With the traditional method, the active agent is attached chemically to the antibody. This process forms a combination of different compounds, each of which tacks the active ingredient to the antibody at a different site.

The combination is difficult to analyze and can result in serious side effects. Spycher focused on the idea of pursuing an additional approach where, by means of enzymes, the active ingredient can be directly bound onto the antibody at the best site, precisely and without great effort. Therefore, these so-called antibody-agent conjugates can be made more quickly and at lower cost. Furthermore, drugs produced in this way must be better tolerated and more effective.

As a child, Philipp Spycher, 34, already had the desire to explore. As a teenager, he read well-known science magazines such as Spektrum der Wissenschaft and Bild der Wissenschaft. From this, he came to know about the revolution that was happening in life sciences: nanotechnology promised to use nature with a precision never known before.

Spycher was particularly attracted by one idea: nano-robots that destroy cancer cells. “Cancer is an issue in our family”, Spycher said, because his Grandmother and an Uncle died from it. After graduation, he studied biomedical technology at ETH Zurich and nanosciences in Basel. In his doctoral research, he examined how molecules could be altered for cell studies with enzymes and, to advance this research, he accepted a postdoctoral job at the Center for Radiopharmaceutical Sciences at PSI.

Without the first class infrastructure, the supportive environment of my group and the great freedom, I would never have been able to realize my idea in this way.

Philipp Spycher

In spring 2017, he tested the idea he had that night in the Key West hotel room and surprisingly, discovered that his method works for all types of antibodies and a wide range of active agents.

In June, he presented his idea successfully to the jury of the PSI Founder Fellowship. In the next 18 months, he should produce the “proof-of-concept”: evidence that the idea, which he tested in the artificial environment of the laboratory, also demonstrates the desired result under realistic conditions. Since Spycher is positive in his new method, he plans to establish a start-up company before long.

For pharmaceutical companies, this start-up will better and more effectively bind active agents to antibodies, but it will also make its own drugs.

Somehow, I have built a nano-robot after all. It's not, however, like any robot I would have imagined when I was 14, but rather a kind of bio-robot that can fight cancer.

Philipp Spycher

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