Kalle Malmberg

In recent years, immunotherapy has developed into a very potent method of fighting cancer. However, the type of immunotherapy that is currently on the market does not work on all cancer patients. If Professor Karl-Johan Malmberg of the Department of Cancer Immunotherapy at Oslo University Hospital manages to achieve what he set out to do, a completely new approach may be a reality in five to ten years.

‘Based on research conducted in the past ten years by Karolinska Institutet and Oslo University Hospital, among others, we have developed a method for differentiating adaptive natural killer cells with a unique ability to recognise and kill cancer cells. This type of cellular therapy can be effective against cancer in patients who do not respond to the checkpoint inhibitors currently on the market,’ says Malmberg.

Licence agreement of great value to Oslo University Hospital

If Malmberg and his partner succeed in their approach, it would be revolutionary, to put it mildly. Cancer immunotherapy drugs are very expensive, but, with this approach, they will become much cheaper and not least easier to develop and administer to cancer patients.

-‘Moreover, Fate Therapeutics has developed a method that means that the killer cell being developed will not be identified as alien by the body, and it can hopefully then be used on most cancer patients. If we have access to this kind of cell, we avoid expensive and complicated treatments adapted to the individual, and immunotherapy can be made available to more patients than today,’ says Kristin Sandereid, a business developer at Inven2.

On behalf of Oslo University Hospital, Inven2 has negotiated a deal with the US company Fate Therapeutics. The agreement entails that Malmberg, together with the company and a team of top researchers, will spend the next two years making the NK cell therapy good enough to be tested on people.

-‘From our perspective, it’s a very good deal. It secures Malmberg and the hospital NOK 6 million at the start of the research collaboration, and, not least, several hundred million if this goes all the way to the market and benefits cancer patients,’ says Sandereid.

‘Amazing opportunity’

Cancer immunotherapy is about getting the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer. Cancer cells have developed a whole range of mechanisms for going undetected by the immune system. Natural killer cells, or NK cells, are a type of cell critical to the immune system. They are tasked with detecting and destroying alien and harmful substances.

-‘We have already developed what is known as a platform technology, which can select and prepare NK cells. Together with Fate, we can now go the whole road and create large amounts of NK cells adapted to the individual patient’s cancer,’ explains Malmberg.

He is Swedish himself and has conducted research together with senior NK cell researchers at Karolinska Institutet. The last five years, however, he has conducted research in Norway at the Department of Cancer Immunotherapy.

Fate Therapeutics has compiled a ‘dream team’ of researchers who will develop the tailored killer cell together with their Norwegian and Swedish colleagues.

-‘It’s an amazing opportunity. We have come far with our research, but it’s impossible for us to make a product available to patients without an industrial partner. And, in my opinion, Fate is the perfect partner, so we’re in for a busy but exciting period,’ says Malmberg.