11 JUN 2021
Researchers are seeking a new generation of cancer biomarkers that will make diagnosis and treatment more precise for patients — improving the efficiency and success rate of drug development. Learn more about Christina Esdar and the challenges of her work and her hopes for the future.
Why is it important to identify cancer biomarkers?
If you ask five people for a definition for biomarkers, you’ll get five different answers! But there are two important categories that my group focuses on: pharmacodynamic and predictive biomarkers. Pharmacodynamic biomarkers can tell us if a drug is reaching its target and elicits a biological response — in other words, doing what you’d like it to do. That’s important for finding the right dose to give to a patient in a clinical study. You may have already achieved complete target engagement — increasing it any further could increase the risk of toxic side effects. We’re also looking for predictive biomarkers, which can tell you which specific patient or tumor type is particularly sensitive to your drug. You might have, for example, a biomarker that identifies a specific mutation or the loss of a specific protein in a tumor and then you can identify whether the tumor has a particularly high or even no sensitivity to your drug. So, it’s all about selecting the right patient for the drug you're working on — laying the foundations for precision medicine.
How big of a role does precision medicine play in your projects?
We have a strong philosophy of precision medicine. All the scientists working in R&D here have a very good understanding of the critical importance of biomarkers. It’s really in our mindset that we start as early as possible to identify biomarkers for every cancer drug discovery project.
What are your biggest achievements so far?
You’d probably expect to hear about successes, but unfortunately, many of the things we’re doing will not work, and will not materialize into an approved drug. But even if we help to make a decision early on to stop something, that’s an achievement. That might be considered a failure, but that’s absolutely wrong.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Every day is different, has a different question and is a new learning opportunity. Helping patients is the overarching goal, but sometimes in the day-to-day work, that feels far away. But I like working with brilliant people on intellectual challenges — that's really what motivates and drives me.
What are your biggest challenges?
You have to accept that you work on things which won’t be continued for various reasons, and not because you're doing a poor job or did something wrong. That's just the underlying science. You have a hypothesis, you do an experiment, and then you either confirm your initial idea or you don't. But for me, that’s less of a challenge and more of a learning opportunity for the next project. Another big challenge for us is that the tumor can be smart as we are. There's always the chance of resistance which might evolve under treatment. You have an innovative treatment, which is very efficient for maybe a year or so, but then the tumor changes its profile. That's probably the biggest challenge for us in oncology research — to understand resistance mechanisms and tackle them.
What are your hopes for the future?
My main hope is that some of the drugs or targets we’re currently working on will make a difference to patients. The company has also hired a lot of young and highly talented scientists over the last few years. It is great to support their professional development and educate them, and to help them find their place here so that they will be able to continue our work towards innovative and improved cancer therapies!
What advice would you give to young people interested in a career in science?
Always follow your interests. When I started to study biology, my parents were anything but happy, but I’m grateful that they allowed me to make my own choices. My advice is that you should not study or follow a career path you are not completely behind. If you’re 100% committed to what you're doing, then you’ll find your place in life.