Pontus Blomberg has guided the development of Vecura in Flemingsberg for more than 20 years. Here, together with his colleagues, he has built up Sweden’s leading gene and cell therapy lab. An area that is set to lead to remedial treatments for everything from certain cancers to Alzheimer’s.
Gene and cell therapy are also expected to transform large swathes of healthcare.
“Much of today’s conventional drug treatments work of course by relieving symptoms, but with this the basic idea is to cure the patient. This could have far-reaching effects on healthcare as we know it,” he says.
In cell therapy, the body’s own cells are used to treat and even cure. Once cells are taken from the patient, they can be altered and processed under lab conditions to become unique drugs – unique to every patient.
“There are several established cell therapies on the market today that are licensed drugs. At the moment, this applies to only a handful of drugs worldwide, but an unbelievably strong change is already underway.
“The conditions being treated include leukemia, cartilage damage to the knee, and a variety of immunodeficiency diseases. In the future, cell therapy may be able to make a major contribution to everything from cancer treatments to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and different types of spinal injuries.”
Sweden’s largest gene and cell therapy lab
Sweden’s largest and leading gene and cell therapy lab is Vecura in Flemingsberg. And it is this facility that Pontus Blomberg has been directing since the middle of the 1990s. At that point, he had just finished a post-doc in the US, and had the expertise in molecular biology that was such a good match.
“It was a really exciting time to see what had been basic research being applied in practice. And it was enormously enjoyable to have been involved right from the start when the field was established in Sweden.
At the outset, there were just four people who launched the facility. After a few years’ work, they secured GMP certification needed for products from the lab to be used in clinical trials.
“We produced the first Swedish-made gene therapy drugs here. There were two different products, one for treating heart disease, the other for DNA vaccination of HIV.“
Professor Christer Sylvén was responsible for the heart project and professor Britta Wahren for the DNA vaccination project. Both were pioneers in their field with the common denominator being the development of products for treatments.
“That these techniques could be used for many different types of therapy was also a strength. You can have the same production platform for a vaccine for HIV as for a gene therapy drug for heart and lung disease,” says Blomberg.
An entirely new field
At the beginning of the 2000s, the facility’s work was widened to include cell therapy and the hospital made a fresh investment ahead of a change in the law.
“Today, we primarily do cell-based products, which is an entirely new field. Having said that, it’s not new at all because cells for transplant have been around for ages,” he says.
“What’s new is that it is classed as a drug, and that there are more and more applications for the cells. And now you can alter cells at a genetic level, to, for example, make them more aggressive against tumours.”
Today, Vecura is part of the Karolinska Cell Therapy Center (KCC) with Blomberg as managing director. The center provides support and guidance for those developing therapy drugs in industry and academia. Vecura is one of KCC’s three pillars, with the other being a Single Entry Point, a type of contact person who provides guidance at all stages of a project. The third element is a prioritization committee that evaluates, approves, and prioritizes every project.
“The committee ensures that projects have a scientific background, an overarching idea about what type of patients they are focusing on, and how many people can be treated, as well as the necessary resources with responsible managers in place for different stages of a project,” says Blomberg.
The prioritization committee’s advice acts as a support, but also as a control function, both for researchers and participating clinics throughout the lifetime of a project. This is extremely important, especially today as the field has fallen under the shadow of the Macchiarini case, which has attracted international attention.
To what extent has the field been damaged by the scandal?
“He represents a tiny part of the field, the vast majority of researchers work in other areas. But of course it has had an effect, especially on us in Sweden. And it has resulted in greater awareness of what an important role the KCC plays,” he says.
“Overall though, many people were affected, including myself.”
Unconventional research path
Blomberg took his doctorate at Uppsala University in 1993. Initially, he thought of being a limnologist*, but then became more interested in cell biology and molecular biology. His research path has been unconventional, favoring the buildning of infrastructure and projects that enable others to make progress in research.
“A considerable proportion of my work is devoted to development rather than basic biological research. It’s fun to be able to provide the conditions, work as a team, so that others can develop things.”
Have you had any personal role models?
“At this point, I’m supposed to deliver a real Zlatan-answer,” he says and laughs.
But he refuses to name anyone after Professor Kurt Nordström who was his handledare for his doctorate at Uppsala. He is a role model for his burning commitment, curiosity and his pioneering spirit.
The next step in cell therapy is to treat large patient groups to provide evidence that supports our methods. And then introduce them more broadly into healthcare.
“We want to make it possible for doctors to prescribe these treatments just as easily as they do today,” he says.
Something that he hopes will happen in the coming ten years. At that point, Blomberg will just about have hit retirement.
“It’ll be a good way to finish,” he says, laughing.“It would be great to be involved for the entire journey, from the research stage to treatments that are given to patients.”
The treatments themselves have the potential to send shockwaves through today’s healthcare system. In many cases, this will involve a patient-specific approach, where highly specialized hospitals take on the role of drug manufacturers. And the fact is that this is about treatments that will cure people, and this poses a threat to drug manufacturers’ business models. Despite this, he sees potential for a new Swedish industry – why not a new, internationally successful Astra or Pharmacia.
“I think that’s entirely possible because we have the entire supply chain from fantastic research to drug production capacity. But a condition for success is close co-operation between healthcare, academia and industry,” he says.
* Limnologists study processes and interactions in inland water, and how inland water interacts with other ecosystems.