English in the service of science

Being open to an English understanding among work colleagues! A topic that is increasingly important in times of internationalization. Bilingualism in the company is not only important for a good international cooperation.

Although a few of the employees of Roche in Penzberg come from an English speaking country, English is the official language in pharmaceutical companies. What is the role of English at Roche? Read more about this in the Spotlight Language Magazine!

​A passion for language and for research: lab technician Sabine Moosmann

Nur wenige der 5.600 Angestellten von Roche in Penzberg sprechen Englisch als Muttersprache. Trotzdem ist Englisch die offizielle Sprache in dem Unternehmen, das richtungsweisende Forschung im Kampf gegen den Krebs betreibt. Von CLAUDINE WEBER-HOF

I’m standing in a big, bright room filled with scientific equipment. Next to me, holding a microscopic slide in her hand, is a slight woman with twinkling brown eyes: Sabine Moosmann is the lead technician of this research lab. She’s explaining her work to me here in Penzberg, Germany, a small city in the greater Munich metropolitan area.

“One thing people always wonder,” she says, “is why the pharmaceutical industry has no cure for cancer yet. After all, cancer has been around for such a long time. That’s, of course, only partially true — since there is no single treatment, as cancer is not a single disease.”

Sabine works for Roche, a Swiss diagnostics and pharmaceuticals concern that is a leader in cancer research. Its breakthroughs, like the breast cancer drug Herceptin, make headlines around the world. The role of Sabine’s lab in this is to prepare “maps” of tumour tissue. The technicians here take thin slices of tumour tissue and place them on glass slides. Then they stain the samples in ways that make it possible for researchers to study the tissue cells on them. The researchers will then decide which parts of the diseased tissue should be studied in more detail.

“What you see here in the microscopic image are two different types of colorectal tumour: one that has a really big immune reaction, and one with an immune reaction that is much smaller,” Sabine says. “The aim is to isolate the immune cells and do the RNA sequencing afterwards so we can see if they are completely the same, or different from tumour to tumour. at’s also the essence of personalized healthcare.”

“Personalized healthcare” is a buzzword in the world of medical research. Yet the term can easily be misunderstood. It seems to imply that each cancer patient will get a drug that is specially tailored to his or her individual

needs. That’s not the case.

“We are looking for patient groups with the same tumour specifics,” Sabine says. “As a result, not all cancer patients get the same treatment. We look deeper into it. We look at exactly what type of tumour it is, and what treatment helps the most with that specific tumour type.”

In January of 2015, the White House announced a project to collect genetic data from a million Americans — all in the name of personalized healthcare. The move to create a massive biomedical database underscores the direction medical research is taking today.

“If we’re born with a particular disease, or a particular genetic makeup that

makes us more vulnerable to something, that’s not our destiny, that’s not our fate,” President Barack Obama told the press.

His words reflect a massive revolution in medical science. Sabine and her colleagues are part of this global effort — an effort that is taking place largely in English.

Cancer killer: the immune system

Sabine grew up in Germany’s Black Forest and fell in love with lab work while employed at a university in Munich. When she moved over to Roche, she found herself in a more international environment: the company’s location in Penzberg in the greater Munich area attracts research specialists from all over the world. Sabine attended inhouse language classes and improved her English through daily interaction with colleagues. The effort paid off. Her explanations of complex scientific subjects are as clear as a bell.

“According to the latest research findings, the best help you can give to patients is to support their immune system with antibodies or with other treatments,” she tells me. “So at the moment, we are placing a lot of our research focus on the improvement of the immune system in diseased individuals.”

The idea, she adds, is to define the different types of tumour by looking at the different immune reactions the body has to the cancerous cells. To illustrate the process of mapping tumour cells, Sabine leads me to a part of the lab where specialists are studying tumour samples using a special microscope and software suite.

“There — that’s the chemical staining,” Sabine says, indicating coloured areas of tissue now visible on a large computer screen. “It shows which part is normal tissue, and which part is tumour. That’s why we have an expert sitting here.”

Research scientist Dr Hadassah Sade smiles and points to her microscope. “In this project, we are dissecting out with a laser some areas in a specific type of tumour — a colorectal tumour,” she says. “We want to understand the different RNA species present in the different compartments of the tumour.”

Dr Sade then looks at a computer screen. There, projected at a high agnification, is what she sees through her microscope. With a couple of clicks, she “cuts out” the relevant areas of the tumour and sends the samples on for further analysis.

“We’re studying the tumour epithelial cells and the environment around the tumour, which is made up of stroma — the supportive framework around cells — plus inflammatory cells,” she says. “These different cells communicate closely with each other either by direct contact or through soluble substances and define the parameters that can control, inhibit or promote tumour growth.’’ Dr Sade is originally from India. I ask her what it’s like to work in English in an environment where it is not the native tongue.

“English is the language of business in an international company,” she says. “Communicating across different cultural backgrounds as a non-native speaker, we make particular efforts to make sure our communication is clear, simple, direct and concise and, wherever possible, to converse in person rather than through e-mail.

“It is also vital to be open-minded and mutually encourage a culture of clarification, especially as we think in one language and translate to speak in another, something that on the one hand has its amusing quirks but can lead to misinterpretations. You have to express yourself properly in terms of scientific topics, of course, but the most difficult part is to master the subtleties of the language so you can express yourself without any misunderstandings.”

Making an impact

Sabine takes me down a long hall and through some labs dominated by giant machines. We’re on our way to see Dr Marta Canamero, who oversees pathology lab operations at Roche in Penzberg. We arrive at her office, where she greets us. “Did you get to see the lab?” Dr Canamero asks. I nod, and she shows us a photo on her wall. “This is my husband and my two kids who I moved here with from Spain,” she says. “They don’t want to hear about going back, or about moving anywhere else. You never think you will change your job, because you have your family, your friends. In Spain, I was publishing in Nature, Cell, Cancer Cell, so really high-impact papers, 12 a year — and I was leading a lab there at the National Cancer Research Institute. “I had a small lab doing laser capture dissection, doing imaging, doing molecular [pathology], like we do here, but at a really small level. The way we work here is extremely different. First of all, we have 40 different nationalities here at the Penzberg site, and people here are really focused on the patient. Here, you can make an impact on diseases and change someone’s life.”

Dr Canamero’s phone rings, so Sabine and I move on. Down the hall, we come across two men working at a bank of microscopes. Behind them is a huge window with a view of the Alps. The researchers introduce themselves as Georges Marchal from France, and Marc Zaetschky. Marc is “mostly German — and 12.5 per cent Danish”, information he adds with the accuracy you’d expect of a biomedical analyst.

I take a seat at one of the microscopes and they describe the task at hand. The tissue they are examining is a xenograft — a mixed-species tissue sample. In this case, human cancer cells have been injected into a mouse. An experimental cancer treatment is given to the mouse, too, and the “mouse model” is used to study the efficacy of the new drug.

“If it’s a drug that targets the tumour, then the tumour reacts,” Georges says. “So cells should die — you should see something.”

Experiments like this are a key step before drug trials with human patients. Medical trials on people with advanced bladder cancer using a drug made by Roche have generated much discussion on how the proteins found with certain cancers can hide tumours from the immune system. Roche’s new drug targets these proteins, allowing the immune system to see through the camouflage. Then the immune system leaps into action. The results in patient trials have been very promising. In some instances, the tumours being treated disappeared completely (see Spotlight 3/15, page 12).

“The goal is always to go for the immunohistochemistry and detect the protein,” says Georges. As the two researchers talk about their work, I am struck once again by their fluency in English. I ask if it’s a burden to learn it. Marc laughs. “We have no choice.”

“I wish you what”

Sabine takes me to meet a rare bird on the Roche campus: a speaker of English from England. Katy Wilson is a lab technician who is from the Isle of Wight, just off Britain’s south coast. I ask her what she thinks about how English has become so important at Roche.

“I think it’s something good that specifically the Roche site in Penzberg recognized,” she says. “They said, OK, if we want to push English, then we have to encourage people and offer them opportunities to learn the language.

“The difference in just three or four years has been phenomenal. When I first came here seven years ago to do my Praktikum, I had more of a chance to learn German than people had to learn English. When I came back in 2010, it was sort of equal. The ‘we want to do it’ attitude had won out. And the more international we became, the more we needed to speak English.”

Inevitably, she says, some things get lost in translation. “What’s the literal translation of the German ‘Ich wünsche Dir was’? Someone says to me, ‘I wish you what’, and you have no idea of what they’re talking about, especially when you’ve been here for just three weeks. en you’re like, ‘She wishes me… what?’ You don’t yet know that it just means something like ‘See you later’.”

©Spotlight 8I2016

Tags: Career Blog, Germany