Magdalena Król, member of the COST Mye-EUNITER network, has been shortlisted for the EU Prize for Women Innovators 2020. The prize celebrates the outstanding achievements of female entrepreneurs running innovative companies and is funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme for research and innovation. The finalists have been selected due to their pioneering, game-changing innovations across a wide range of industries that will combat global challenges. Their innovations range from the optimisation of cancer treatments to generating clean electricity from ocean and sea waves. Winners will be announced between the 22-24 September.
Can you tell us more about your entry for the EU Prize for Women Innovators?
One day I received an e-mail from the COST Mye-EUNITER group announcing that there is a EU Prize for Women Innovator open call. I saw the rules and requirements for candidates and asked myself – “Why not?”. Somehow, I have already achieved quite a lot relative to my age and the secret is that I just simply love what I am doing.
At the age of 37 I became a full Professor at Warsaw University of Life Sciences, Head of Department of Cancer Biology and am also an entrepreneur. I am a co-founder and Member of the Board of Cellis, a company which operates in Poland and Switzerland. Together with my colleagues, I built the company from the beginning, found investors, identified, and adapted laboratories to perform pre-clinical research. I am also responsible for communication with big pharma companies. The technology of the company is based on our groundbreaking scientific discovery of a new physiological phenomenon. Our pioneering research uses this mechanism to selectively target toxins and immunomodulators to solid tumors, especially those of unmet medical need. This constitutes a cutting-edge technology, showing, for the first time, the possibility to use macrophages as a “Trojan horse” to deliver almost every molecule of choice directly to the solid tumor. MDC technology has the potential to greatly improve the prognosis of cancer patients who have solid tumors. Due to the lack of efficient treatment options, these patients have unacceptably poor prognoses and associated with low survival rates. The MDC technology was awarded in 2017 by the European Research Council (ERC) and selected as one of the top 10 projects of the highest significance in ERC history. I have received almost all the possible scientific awards in Poland and two ERC grants. My career path is very often presented as an example to young people, especially woman, to show them that nothing is impossible, to look always for solutions and not problems, particularly when it comes to making “big changes” in our world.
What is your involvement in Cellis and how did you come to be involved?
Together with Dr. Tomasz Rygiel and Prof. Alberto Boffi, I co-founded Cellis. Now I am Member of the Board at Cellis. The technology of the company is based on our groundbreaking scientific discovery of a new physiological phenomenon. Our pioneering research showed that macrophages are able to take up ferritins (Ft) loaded with a variety of different compounds creating Macrophage-Drug Conjugates (MDCs). These MDCs are then able to specifically transfer the compounds to cancer cells thereby killing them or changing the whole tumor microenvironment. We named this transfer: TRAIN (TRAnsfer of Iron-binding proteiN). This is a first in class technology with the potential to revolutionize the treatment of solid tumors, especially those of unmet medical need: glioblastoma, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, lung cancer.
Currently, I am leading the R&D team of young scientists developing the MDC technology and I am coordinating multi centre studies testing two of a few indications of the technology. Doing this, I encourage young people to cooperate with people from various fields and to understand that our power is in our diversity. I must say, however that this “entrepreneurship adventure” is very exciting. My role is to build the company, find investors and secure European research money to support development of this technology, secure IP and cooperate with big pharma companies in order to make this global technology successful.
This is quite unusual in my region, to establish start-up company to commercialize the scientific discovery. Here in Central Europe, scientists are rather focused on scientific publications and not on the commercialization of their results and therefore we lack tradition, environment, procedures, and most important – good examples of commercialization. Therefore, I must say it was more difficult to make these first steps and pave the way.
The development of novel therapy is a big challenge. It needs ecosystem for innovative translational research. Right now, it takes about 10 to 15 years between a first-in-men trial of the treatment and full clinical application. Many innovative approaches fail. It is therefore a long, difficult and risky process in which many issues need to be addressed. It is not only the knowledge or technical barriers, but also financial, regulatory and reimbursement barriers. Commercialization of this technology therefore, will take many years.
How do you feel being nominated?
It is a great honour for me, but also to the people who work with me. I have already received many congratulations and support and what is really important to me is that it starts to work out as an example. Other women scientists are calling me and asking how to progress in asimilar direction like I did. This is encouraging.
What would it mean to you to win a prize?
As I mentioned this prize is important not only for me, but also for all the women in my region: Central-Eastern Europe. We do not have any recent biotech success stories, but we need that success to let people believe that it is possible. We have very smart scientists, but we need to encourage them to do big things, to change the world globally and the best way to do so it is to let them believe they may succeed.
This prize would have one more meaning for me. We are currently in Poland a step before withdrawal of Istanbul Convention what will be a major step backwards in the protection of women`s rights and protection of women against violence in Poland and Europe. This prize shows that women matter.
You were involved in COST Action Mye-EUNITER. What was your experience of that and how do you think it has helped you in your career?
I must say, that without COST it would have never have happened!
First of all, being involved in my first COST Action CM1106 “Chemical Approaches to Targeting Drug Resistance in Cancer Stem Cells” I met Prof. Alberto Boffi from Sapienza University of Rome. He worked with ferritin, I worked with macrophages. So, Alberto Boffi, Tomasz Rygiel and I, we have joined our expertise and invented MDC. We have discovered TRAIN, we have filed several patents together and we have created Cellis. Thanks to this cooperation I have received two ERC grants!
The next important experience was my participation to COST Action BM1404 Mye-EUNITER “European Network of Investigators Triggering Exploratory Research on Myeloid Regulatory Cells”. It gave me opportunity to cooperate with the best European scientists in this field. As a result, we transferred technology of macrophage generation from iPSCs cells from Edinburgh to Warsaw. People from my lab completed scientific internships (STSM) in Edinburgh and Brussels. Three scientists involved in Mye-EUNITER became members of the Scientific Advisory Board of Cellis and helped to develop the company.
In my opinion COST is a really great initiative and I encourage scientists in Poland to participate to various COST Actions. I was personally involved in 6 different actions. It is a great idea to put different people together and let their brains to “boil”. All that exchange of experience and ideas during a few days when these people are together is very inspiring and motivating. It is also very important for the development of the career of young scientists – they may visit different labs using STSM program.