Their personalities complement each other. This, they say, is what allows them to come up with so many new ideas. And that is essential, because they are facing some tricky questions concerning melanomas (an aggressive form of skin cancer). Why do patients become resistant against different types of treatment? Can we find new starting points for treatment to avoid resistance? Can we find proteins to inhibit in order to increase tumor sensitivity to immunotherapy? Only by collaborating between lab and clinic can we find answers to all these questions.
Four years ago, in Peeper’s garden, the two decided to launch a startup on top of their activities in the lab and clinic. “My lab identified a specific protein which, when inhibited, broke resistance to immunotherapy. On top of publishing our findings in Cell, we decided to develop a specific medicine ourselves – something usually the territory of the pharmaceutical industry. This ambition was certainly fueled by our ‘twinning’, which we are now hoping to take to the next level,” Peeper says.
In their free time, the two men teamed up with a postdoc from Peeper’s lab, Maarten Ligtenberg, to establish the company. “That's how I got most of my gray hairs. I don’t know if I would have done it, had I known how much work it ended up being,” Blank confesses. Now that their company is officially up and running, they have both taken a step back, staying connected to the company as advisors.
“Our shared dream is to treat patients with our own drug, one that blocks the tumor protein we discovered in the lab. Ten years ago, 95% of patients with metastatic melanomas died within a year. With the new treatment methods that are currently being developed by all our colleagues in the field, I hope that we will be able to cure 95% of melanoma patients within five years. If our company could contribute to this goal, that would be wonderful and quite emotional for us,” Blank says.
But for now, there are plenty of research questions to answer. “We are on our way to uncover the genes that are involved in treatment resistance, out of all 25,000 genes expressed in tumor cells,” Peeper says. This is the future of oncology, Blank believes. “Daniel is a great hardcore researcher with tremendous genetic data sets. Using the CRISPR-Cas9 knockout technology, his group is identifying the genes that render tumors more sensitive to immunotherapy. He also understands that patients are a lot more complex than his cultured tumor cells in the lab. But he is able to reduce that complexity, allowing us to investigate the problem.”
The two men share an office, in which Blank divides his attention between his patients and the research that they discuss. “We rarely discuss things calmly over a cup of coffee. Except, perhaps, during Christian’s glühwein party in the winter, and my barbecue for our labs in the summer. We often meet up ad hoc - although Christian’s phone usually rings every other minute,” Peeper says, smiling. “I admire the way in which he can switch between his two roles, and I am happy that we manage to work so productively together.”