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Karin Mellström: “Co-operation is the key to success”

After 10 years as a start-up, CellProtect Nordic Pharmaceuticals has taken a major step forward. Our patient and careful work is now bearing fruit, explains Karin Mellström, CEO and founder. Looking back on her career, she sums it up by saying: “I’d never been bored for a second!”

From their new premises in Novum, CellProtect Nordic Pharmaceuticals is preparing its next step in its journey from research results to patients. The goal is to create an entirely new method to treat cancer.
“Our first test showed an excellent safety profile. We’re now building an environment at Novum to conduct our next study,” says Mellström, CEO and co-founder of CellProtect Nordic Pharmaceuticals.

At the forefront of drug treatment
CellProtect Nordic Pharmaceuticals works at the forefront of developing the drugs of tomorrow. Using immunotherapy, the company is developing a new treatment method for blood cancer condition known as multiple myeloma.
The discovery of the new treatment originates from another Flemingsberg start-up. When that company lost momentum in the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2009, the promising method risked being lost. So Mellström gathered her colleagues to quickly recover the work that had been done. Together, they founded CellProtect Nordic Pharmaceuticals in 2012.
“We’ve all been involved since the first research breakthroughs were made in the lab and are a gang driven by professional experience. We’ve faced challenges along the way of course, but they’re there to be overcome.
The first clinical trials were conducted two years later, and these were successful.
“Our development illustrates how important and how comprehensive the research environment is in Flemingsberg. We have highly talented researchers who make important breakthroughs. It also offers proximity to healthcare facilities and an environment suitable for refining discoveries. Co-operation is the key to success,” she says.

An entirely new field
However, the journey to this point has at times been trying. The field in which the company operates is entirely new and has, for example, required the development of a new regulatory framework by the Swedish Medical Products Agency. Today, the company has patents in place and the treatment has been granted orphan drug designation by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
The development of immune therapies is an area that has many areas of uncertainty. Something that has contributed to difficulties in sourcing long-term financial backing. However, this is now in sight and Mellström has taken time out from retirement to oversee the completion of the project.
“There was no question about coming back and heading the company. We’re currently recruiting a new CEO and there’s a great deal of interest both from young gifted and experienced people who want to contribute to our development. When this is done, I will step down.

No such thing as failure
Giving up has never been an option for Mellström. She describes this as an innate desire to always find solutions to problems.
“There is no such thing as failure, only different ways of finding solutions. That incentivises me. She stresses the importance of taking one step at a time but equally the importance of ensuring each step is in the right direction.
“My role is to ensure that the right piece of the puzzle is ready as we move forward. It’s been a hugely enjoyable journey. And if you’ve ever seen our research results, you’d really want to make sure that those reach all the way to patients.”
In addition to the CEO role, Mellström has taken on the responsibility of acting as a mentor to younger colleagues.
“This gives me a snapshot of the future. They are young, well-read and knowledgeable about new techniques and methods. Being a mentor to them gives me energy, she says.
Being a mentor has also made her look back at her own career.
“That’s when I realised that I’d never been bored for a second!”
But that doesn’t mean that every day has been a bed of roses, she says. This is why she advises her mentees to be patient. At the time, they should avoid becoming stuck in situations or environments where they don’t have the space they need to develop their talents.

A potential cure for cancer
Immunotherapy can be described as a way of making the body’s own immune system attack cancer cells. Although the field is relatively new, it is highly promising.
“We’re now planning to start our next round of clinical trials in 2020 and this will be a key step along the way to a finished drug,” says Mellström, who is convinced that the field has the potential to cure certain forms of cancer.
“But cancer is a potent adversary. That’s why it’s important that we don’t overlook previous knowledge in our search for entirely new therapies. Immunotherapy has a role to play in other treatments as well.”

The treatment starts with a blood sample taken from the patient. The blood then undergoes a manufacturing process in a cleanroom lab in Flemingsberg where the body’s own so-called NK cells are expanded and activated. Cells are trained to recognize and kill tumour cells present in the patient with the three-step treatment successively being intensified. The treatment is designed to be administered in combination with other treatments in which the number of tumour cells are at their lowest. This increases the likelihood of destroying remaining tumour cells.

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