Life Science Workshop a ‘Tour de Force of Knowledge’ for Bayer, Hopkins Scientists
This spring, Bayer brought its Life Science Workshop Series to the Johns Hopkins medical campus, creating an information exchange that could further stimulate collaboration between the two organizations.
The invite-only scientific workshop focused on how advances in radiation science and radiopharmaceuticals have created opportunities for more effective cancer treatments by combining radiation therapy and immuno-oncology. Experts from Johns Hopkins, Bayer, the National Cancer Institute, National Institute of Health, Weill Cornell Medicine, University of Washington Medicine and Tulane University presented over the two-day event.
“What really struck me and what I think made this conference novel is that we started with the latest developments in immunology and ended with the latest developments in radiochemistry,” says Dr. George Sgouros, Johns Hopkins’ representative on the four-person organizing committee of the workshop’s scientific program. “That span of expertise I really hadn’t seen put together in that way. It was a tour de force of knowledge that spanned numerous fields that you typically wouldn’t find in any one meeting.”
During the workshop, the three dozen Bayer scientists, two dozen Johns Hopkins researchers and six guest speakers in attendance had deep scientific discussions about cutting-edge cancer treatments that combine radiation therapy with immune cells that target cancer cells and deliver the radiation therapy systemically in a tumor-targeted manner.
“Tumor cells have co-opted the machinery that prevent our immune system from attacking our own cells,” says Sgouros, the director of radiopharmaceutical dosimetry and a professor of radiology and radiological science at Johns Hopkins. “Interestingly, immune cells infiltrate tumors, but they don’t act because they get signals that tell them not to.”
Recent research has found that certain drugs can block the “cloaking signal” that tumor cells give off, triggering the immune cells to action. In addition, Sgouros says, the immune cells will develop a memory that allows them to recognize and fight tumor cells in the future. This novel treatment combined with radiation therapy that calls immune cells to action by killing a tumor cell and releasing parts of it outside its membrane has shown improved patient outcomes.
“This event was a great opportunity to get updated on the latest science in an interactive way,” Sgouros says.
Though Bayer’s current collaboration with Johns Hopkins focuses on ophthalmology, the German-based company chose to have one of its four annual workshops in Baltimore to provide a diverse, strong learning experience for its scientists and to explore further synergies for its established relationship with Johns Hopkins.
“We designed this event to have real scientific purpose and to serve as a platform for thought exchange,” says Marion Hitchcock, Bayer’s alliance manager to Johns Hopkins and a member of the event’s organizing committee. “We wanted to bring our scientists into a setting where they could discuss cutting-edge science, and in particular Targeted Alpha Therapy (Ra 223 and Targeted Thorium Conjugates).” This new platform, with currently the most advanced molecule in early clinical development, uses the combination of tumor-specific antibodies complexed with the alpha-emitting radionuclide thorium-227.
“Additionally, from Bayer’s side, we wanted to get more exposure to other indication areas at Johns Hopkins, particularly in oncology,” Hitchcock says.
According to Hitchcock, the event took about eight months to plan and intentionally took place just before the American Association for Cancer Research’s annual meeting in Washington D.C. By having the workshop on the eve of AACR’s meeting, Bayer’s mostly Europe-based scientists could attend both events within one trip. For both Bayer and Johns Hopkins, the ability to meet and discuss science in-person together with other U.S.-based thought leaders in the field paid dividends.
“It’s meaningful when we can come together with industry collaborators and learn from each other. This event went beyond research and funding to truly focus on scientific exchange and learning opportunities,” says Mary Beth Thanhouser, a business development associate at Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures who helped organize the event.
Though too early to determine how the relationship between Bayer and Johns Hopkins will progress in terms of research collaboration, additional scientific exchanges where both organizations share what they have learned appears certain.
“Many discussions created excitement for both sides,” Hitchcock says. “We definitely look forward to having similar events with Johns Hopkins in the future.”