A breakthrough in fighting blood cancer

Twenty years ago in California, Pablo Umaña did his doctoral research on glycoengineering of antibodies at the California Institute of Technology and ETH-Zurich.

At that time it was already clear that monoclonal antibodies could be important weapons in the fight against cancer and other diseases due to their ability to specifically target and kill harmful cells.

But Pablo didn't want to test the method on just any antibody. He had co-founded a startup biotech company and, like many before them, they wanted to find an antibody to fight blood cancer.

Only very few people believed in their success. But this wasn't the case at Roche. Their and Roche's shared risk-taking strategy paid off.

The most common type of leukaemia to affect adults

Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) is one of the most common types of blood cancer, typically affecting older people. Around 75,000 people die every year from this form of leukemia worldwide.

The disease develops stealthily and is often only discovered by chance prior to symptoms appearing. These symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, enlarged liver or spleen, fatigue, fever, bleeding, and frequent infections.

CLL leads to a large mass of abnormal, malignant white blood cells that crowd healthy blood cells out of the circulatory system, thereby reducing their numbers.

White blood cells protect the body against infection. But cancerous white blood cells don’t work properly, so patients suffer from frequent infections, which can ultimately lead to their death.

Discovery of a great potential

In 2003, Pablo and his team discovered an antibody that could be modified via glycoengineering.

In glycoengineering, sugar chains are modified on the antibodies to enable them to better activate the immune system. In other words, immune cells are lured into fighting the tumor with antibodies that have been "sweetened".

Glycoengineering was widely viewed with scepticism. But this wasn’t the case at Roche – our scientists recognised the immense potential of this method early on.

In 2005 Roche acquired Pablo's small start-up company in Schlieren near Zurich.

The Roche Innovation Center Zurich (Roche GlycArt AG) is active in the research and development of engineered therapeutic antibodies, with a focus on the fields of cancer immunotherapy and immunotherapy in general. Part of the Roche Group since 2005, it now comprises around 140 people.

Aiming to develop fit-for-purpose therapies

"We are gaining sophisticated biological insights into why patients respond differently to treatment", says Pablo, "and we are aiming to develop fit-for-purpose therapies to unleash the right immune response for the right patient at the right time. We strongly believe that combination therapy will play a critical role in achieving this."

"Cancer is so common that I don’t think there are any of us today without family or friends who have been touched by it, which makes our work even more significant. On a more personal note, when one of Roche’s drugs was approved and launched, I met many patients who had been in clinical trials to study this drug. These people were tremendously brave, and by going into the clinical trials they not only helped us but they also helped the rest of the world and future patients. Hearing their stories was touching and an experience that I will never forget."

In brief

First steps in glycoengineering of antibodies

GlycArt is founded as Spin-off of ETH Zürich

Discovered new antibodies, that could be modified by glycoengineering

Roche acquires GlycArt

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