Daniela Thommen was pretty sure she'd be back in Switzerland two years after she left for The Netherlands to experience science abroad. And yet here she is, newly appointed junior group leader at the Netherlands Cancer Institute. "The NKI is an amazing place to do science", she says. "I liked it so much here, that after a year I wanted to stay."
Trained as a medical oncologist, Thommen stayed as close to the clinic as possible when she left her doctor´s coat and chose being a fulltime scientist instead. "As a doctor I've seen the amazing impact new treatments can have on the life of patients", she says. "Sometimes, very advanced tumors just disappear when the patients receive immunotherapy and do not come back. However, at present only a small number of patients is benefiting from this treatment, so we need to improve this."
The core of her lab is her unique tumor fragment platform. With tiny bits of tumor tissue from real patients she investigates how to personalize cancer immunotherapy: matching the right treatment with the right patient. "We cut patient tumor samples into small pieces and we treat these 'tumor avatars' outside the patient", she explains, jokingly interpreting this miniature surgery as a leftover of her childhood dream to become a pediatric surgeon.
"The tumor avatars allow us to study how immunotherapy works, to try to find useful biomarkers, and to compare different immunotherapies in the same patient." Although her platform is not used to make treatment decisions, her work does affect patients as results from the avatars may lead to the design of new clinical trials together with several colleagues in the clinic. Support from the AVL Foundation allowed her to book positive results with her platform. "We found a promising new biomarker, called PD-1T T cells, to identify patients with lung cancer who will benefit from immunotherapy with PD-1 blocking antibodies. At the moment, we are validating this marker in a larger study and for other tumor types."
The tumor avatars are different from organoids, she emphasizes. "For making organoids, the tumor tissue is dissociated first and then grown again. In our platform, the tissue is cut into small pieces and therefore quite similar to the patients´ tissue. They still contain all sorts of cells including immune cells, for example." What´s more is that Thommen doesn´t stick to studying one cancer type. She investigates at least 8 different ones. "There is still so much to learn about how immunotherapy works, imagine the amount of data we can gather… In the long run, we hope to be able to use AI approaches to develop personalized immunotherapy."
Her group currently consists of two PhD students, one technician and is about to expand with at least one scientist. "My research is developing more quickly than I expected, but I'm very excited to get the opportunity to pursue my ideas and take on new responsibilities, for the people in my group for example", she says, illustrating her modesty.
Daniela Thommen's appointment is co-financed by the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Foundation, with the proceeds of the DNA Gala 2018. Her work is also financially supported by the Dutch Cancer Society (KWF) via a Young Investigator Grant/Bas Mulder Award.