11 JUN 2021
Kin-Ming Lo is an Executive Scientific Director in immuno-oncology research and a protein engineer by training. He talks to us about his career path from chemistry to immuno-oncology, and the rewards of developing drugs that can potentially improve patients’ lives.
How did you make the move from academia to industry?
I joined Gobind Khorana's lab at MIT. He was regarded as the ‘father’ of DNA synthesis — a nucleic acid chemist who pioneered the field and won the Nobel Prize for using synthetic nucleic acids to crack the genetic code. In his lab, I learned how to synthesize DNA as a starting point, and then all the fundamental molecular biology techniques from cloning to protein expression. When I finally went for my first industry job, I could truly sell myself as a DNA chemist and molecular biologist.
In the early 1990’s, I was working at a company called Abbott Biotech, but it was moving to Chicago and my family and I didn’t want to go. My boss at the time, a fellow postdoc from MIT, was asked to head Fuji ImmunoPharmaceuticals (FIP), a company founded by his mentor and Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa. Fuji saw that the days of chemical photography were fast coming to an end, and they wanted to screen their huge photochemical library for pharmaceutical use, because a number of dyes were shown to have potent antiviral properties.
I went with my boss to this new start-up. Because we were both molecular biologists with expertise in expressing proteins, our main job was to express proteins for use in a variety of assays to screen the Fuji photochemical library for anti-HIV activity. In our spare time, we started working on recombinant antibodies and antibody-cytokine fusion proteins. Our progress in those areas eventually caught the attention of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany which acquired Lexigen (formerly FIP) in the late 1990’s.
What’s your biggest career achievement?
My biggest achievement is an immuno-oncology drug that is now in clinical trials called bintrafusp alfa – a type of drug known as an antibody-cytokine trap. Cancers have multiple ways of suppressing our immune response. One of those ways is through cell/cell interaction by binding to T cell checkpoint molecules that inhibit T cells, and another is through secreting immunosuppressive cytokines in the tumor microenvironment.
The antibody-cytokine trap was designed to simultaneously block both immunosuppressive mechanisms. It is a fusion of an antibody against the T cell checkpoint PD-L1, and a ‘trap’ that captures the immunosuppressive cytokine TGFbeta. The concept of this dual targeting by bintrafusp alfa is that the antibody part, by binding to PD-L1, not only re-activates the T cells, but also co-localize the trap to the tumor microenvironment to capture the TGFbeta that is secreted locally.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The opportunity to be creative. The company always emphasizes innovation, creativity and taking calculated risks.
When you've worked on a drug candidate in the lab that makes it into clinical trials and potentially beyond that – it’s the scientist’s dream come true. Just to learn how the drug is doing from scientific meetings and publications is very exciting. Of course, nothing is more rewarding than if your drug can improve patients’ lives.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career like yours?
For young talents, I’d tell them biomedical research is an exciting area to be a part of. Look at what COVID vaccines are doing for the world. Scientists can make great contributions. Just follow your dreams.
What are your hopes for the future?
My hope is, of course, that bintrafusp alfa performs well and gets approved. I'm involved in supporting the translational research from the bedside back to the bench. We are trying to find out why the treatment doesn’t work as well in certain patients, and what mechanisms are driving that. The bintrafusp alfa preclinical team is using this research to support the clinical program. For me, I am learning about the drug and how we can improve it.