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Hard on the heels of a Nobel laureate

Long ago, Carl Borrebaeck worked side by side with one of this year’s Nobel Prize winners for chemistry, Sir Gregory Winter, on the publication of an innovative technology within what was then a hot new research field: antibody engineering. In 1989, within the same couple of weeks, both researchers published findings on the technology which has now resulted in a Nobel Prize for chemistry.
male portrait
Carl Borrebaeck. Photo: Apelöga

Since the breakthrough in 1989, Winter has achieved several fantastic further developments of the previous research. “It is great to be able to report that the Department of Immunotechnology at Lund University was so far ahead of its time and contributed to researching a new technology that marked the start of developments that led to today’s Nobel Prize”, says Carl Borrebaeck.

“What Winter and I arrived at simultaneously was a new technology that could copy the genes that code any type of antibodies in thousands of copies”, he says, adding that the antibodies needed to fight cancer cells are the kind that are most difficult to copy.

At the time, Carl Borrebaeck had a small research team working in the Wallenberg laboratory.

“Of course we were competitors. But over the years, we became friends”, says Carl Borrebaeck, who is now a professor of immunotechnology. He explains that, besides being one of the world’s best researchers, Sir Gregory Winter likes to start the day with a little morning exercise – by swimming in the moat around his country home.

After the breakthrough in 1989, Carl Borrebaeck founded two companies that converted the research into biological drugs, Alligator and Immunovia. Alligator recently signed Sweden’s largest ever licensing agreement in life science, worth USD 700 million.

“The essential thing is not money”, he says, “but for the research to benefit cancer patients via the company. It is important that we share our research findings for the benefit of society!”

Tumour cells are “cunning opponents” that almost always succeed in shutting themselves off when the body’s own immune defence system attacks. “But if we succeed in kick-starting the immune system using antibodies that break down the defences of these cells, we can achieve fantastic therapeutic results for patients”.

According to Carl Borrebaeck, the fact that the Nobel Prize often passes Sweden by is connected to Sweden’s insufficient investment in cutting-edge research, compared to the UK which makes major investments in the most promising projects and researchers. ¬

“It is upsetting that we don’t take care of our star researchers and there are many examples of researchers who have left Lund because they were offered better resources in the UK, Denmark or the USA, for example”.

Carl Borrebaeck also thinks that there is a more stimulating environment in places like Cambridge. Gregory Winter has had other Nobel Prize winners as mentors with whom to take a walk in the park over lunch. It is also said that Greg Winter’s room in Cambridge was Isaac Newton’s study several hundred years ago.

“Of course it is stimulating to conduct research in an environment surrounded by exceptional talent!” he says.


Nobel Prize for Chemistry 2018

Frances H. Arnold, Gregory Winter and George P. Smith share the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2018. All three made discoveries that enable evolution to be speeded up in a lab, becoming thousands of times faster.

Frances H. Arnold was the fifth woman ever to be awarded the prize. She received fifty per cent of the Nobel Prize for her research on the directed evolution of enzymes. The other half of the chemistry prize was shared by George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter. They were recognised for what is known as phage display of peptides and antibodies. Phage display is when viruses that infect bacteria are used to generate new proteins. Smith developed the method in 1985 whereas Gregory Winter used it to produce new drugs.


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