An idea from the gut: innovation in cancer therapeutics

Passion, vision, hard work and opportunities can help steer a research journey forward. But when it comes to innovation, having access to programs and infrastructure that support entrepreneurship, such as those found in Switzerland, can really launch a novel idea.
An idea from the gut: innovation in cancer therapeutics

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My research journey

My interest in the microbiome and host-microbial relationships began back in 2011, when I did my Master’s studies in Prof. Mulero's lab (University of Murcia, Spain) under the supervision of Dr. Galindo-Villegas. There, I had the chance to establish an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) model in zebrafish that allowed me to study the mechanisms involved in neutrophils recruitment in vivo, using germ-free and conventionally raised larvae from different mutant and transgenic lines. The project results were incredibly exciting, and I learnt so much about innate immunology and the mechanisms mediating inflammation using this tiny but fascinating model, that I developed a great passion about gastrointestinal mucosal immunology and the crosstalk with the microbiota. Therefore, it was clear to me that the next stage in my research career had to be focused in getting a deeper knowledge of the role gut microbiota plays in modulating the immune system, not only in disease but also under physiological conditions.

With this purpose, I looked all over Europe for a PhD position that could fulfill my expectations. That is the reason why I moved to Graz (Austria) in September 2012, where I joined the DK-MOLIN PhD program focused on the molecular fundamentals of inflammatory diseases, within the Medical University of Graz. During my PhD at Prof. Gorkiewicz’s lab, I studied the role that gut microbiota and the microbial metabolites short-chain fatty acids play in the modulation of the stress-sensing NKG2D system in different gastrointestinal diseases, such as celiac disease, IBD, Helicobacter pylori-associated gastritis, or lymphocytic gastritis. Therefore, during those years I gained a deep knowledge of the host-microbiota crosstalk in the context of diseases characterized by a dysbiotic microbiota.

Within my PhD I also had the chance to do a 6-month internship in the outstanding Imperial College London at Prof. Guerra’s Lab (Faculty of Life Sciences), where I worked with a fascinating murine model mutant for the NKG2D receptor. The purpose behind that internship was to study whether this receptor participated in the modulation of the gut microbiota.

After finishing my PhD in 2016, I started my first Postdoc in the IBD Unit at the Hospital Universitario de La Princesa, Madrid (Spain), headed by Dr. Javier P. Gisbert and under the supervision of Dr. Bernardo. Here, I started to develop a novel project focused on the role that bacterial peptides secreted by different members of the gut microbiota may play on the immune cells, and the potential differences between IBD and healthy patients, in order to use them as biomarkers.

In 2018, I joined Prof. Scharl’s Lab at the Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology (University Hospital Zurich) where, as a Postdoc of the University of Zurich, I led the project on colorectal cancer and the influence of certain bacterial strains in triggering a potent immune response against cancer development. This research allowed me to win the Falling Walls Breakthrough of the Year in the Emerging Talents Category in 2021, which drew attention from the international research community onto my work. Importantly, the research also gave rise to Recolony.

About Recolony

Recolony is a Swiss-based biotech startup, founded in September 2022 as a spin-off from the University of Zurich with the goal to develop a new class of drugs against cancer based on bacteria and bacteria-derived metabolites. These bacteria have an enormous influence on our immune system and are able to provoke and enhance an immune reaction against cancer. At the same time, alterations of the gut microbiota with commensal bacteria have little or no side effects and have the potential to improve considerably the quality of life of cancer patients under treatment. We envision the future of cancer therapies and prevention to be based on, or supported by, commensal microbiota or microbial-derived products, and strive to maximize the patients’ benefits in terms of efficacy and safety. Our lead formulation, RCLBP01, is focused on colorectal cancer and we expect to reach the clinical phase by 2025.

Innovation and funding opportunities in Switzerland

I consider Switzerland an excellent place to develop innovative projects. In fact, Switzerland is proably the most innovative country in the world and has been for the last few years. Swiss universities offer an optimal starting point supporting novel ideas to be developed into promising innovative projects. I was very fortunate to have the support of the University of Zurich through the Entrepreneur Fellowship program to transfer my research results into a startup project. This program gave me the opportunity to receive coaching, pitch trainings, learn how to become an entrepreneur and, in general, get all the support needed in the first steps of the entrepreneurial journey.

Soon afterwards, I received the BRIDGE Proof of Concept fellowship, the joint program of the Swiss National Funds and InnoSuisse, which further helped in the development of Recolony. More recently, my team and I were onboarded in the Wyss Zurich Translational Center, the joint accelerator from the University of Zurich and the ETH. Here, we will get support for the next three to five years to develop the preclinical phase of our project and perform the first-in-human clinical trial. Additional support has come from the Health Innovation Hub of the University Hospital Zurich and the Venture Kick program. Venture Kick is one of the programs of Venture Lab, which is divided in three different stages of funding. It is a very good option to start funding your company and develop it along the course of the program. In general, the funding opportunities are multiple and varied and, depending on the stage of your project, you might look for the one  that is more appropriate at each specific time.

Advice to young scientists

My advice to those scientists thinking about becoming entrepreneurs, or to those who have not even thought about it yet, would be to just dare to do it. If you think you have a good idea, go for it. It doesn’t matter how crazy it might seem, if you believe on it, you must pursue it. Developing your own idea into something bigger, like a startup, is very rewarding both from a personal and professional point of view. Nobody has all the knowledge at the beginning, and most things are learnt along the way, but this learning process makes it even more exciting and for sure, it will never be boring.





Eglė Katkevičiūtė, Ana Montalban-Arques, and Philipp Busenhart, the team at Recolony
Eglė Katkevičiūtė, Ana Montalban-Arques, and Philipp Busenhart, the team at Recolony

Top image by Recolony

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