Keeping cancer in check
Hans Loibner is the CEO at Viennese biotech company Apeiron Biologics. In an interview, the qualified chemist speaks about Apeiron’s latest achievements in cancer therapy and Vienna’s merits as a location for the life sciences and biotech industry.
- In your opinion, what are the benefits of Vienna as a location for life sciences?
Hans Loibner: Vienna is a great city. That, in itself, is already a key factor for people from overseas who have decided to come here. What’s more, Vienna has an above-average number of good funding measures on offer, especially for start-ups.
- It seems that Vienna’s life sciences branch is flourishing especially well, at the moment. In fact, Vienna has already been successfully involved in the biotech industry for several decades. What is your view of current developments?
After two decades in research and development at a large pharmaceuticals company in Vienna, I have been working on the Viennese life sciences scene since 1999, and somehow, I have been able to accompany and play my part in its design from the early days. The biotech business is especially one of the riskiest entrepreneurial activities that exists, and also often experiences setbacks. It is actually “normal” for modern and new kinds of therapy developments to be frequently unsuccessful. This also explains the coming and going of biotech companies in Vienna, and, in fact, also across the world.
- What, then, has changed in Vienna as well as the industry in the past ten years?
Overall, the Viennese scene is impressive. I also believe more companies are founded than before - thanks to the support of good initial funding measures by the city and the government, as well as from investors that are prepared to take on the risks. In my opinion, what is most important, however, are the entrepreneurs and suitable employees. It is lovely to see such a positive development here.
- What was behind Apeiron’s decision to move to Vienna?
Apeiron was founded by Professor Penninger at the end of 2003. At the time, he was one of the leading Austrian geneticists working in Vienna again. For him, Vienna was simply an obvious location choice.
- You yourself joined Apeiron in 2005?
That’s right. I then built up the company from 2005 onwards – and I myself was born in Vienna and am very interested in internationalisation.
- How crucial is the issue of location for your company?
Of course, Apeiron could also choose to base their operations in, for example, San Diego. If nothing else, it would offer a great perspective for me personally, as I am not so fond of winter in Vienna. In principle, you can really move a company anywhere, but most of the people who actually make it what it is would not come along.
- In the Vienna Biocenter, the Vienna Business Agency is establishing more than 70 flexible start-up labs on an area of over 1,000m², with these available from 2019 onwards. What impulses do you expect this will have on the industry as a whole? How important are start-ups in the life sciences branch?
That’s simple: every impulse for start-ups is important for the branch because start-ups are essential for a successful life sciences scene.
- The medication dinutuximab beta developed by Apeiron to combat neuroblastoma – one of the most common malignant tumour diseases among children – was approved for treatment by the EU authorities in the past year. How significant is this achievement for your company and for neuroblastoma therapy itself?
The market approval in the European Union is currently the greatest accomplishment in the history of Apeiron. In recent years, only a few biotech companies of a similar size, or small size, across Europe have gained market approval for a product in the EU by their own efforts. However, the significance for neuroblastoma patients and their families is far more important than this company-strategic, and of course, commercial accomplishment: dinutuximab beta now represents the only immunotherapy for high-risk neuroblastoma currently available in Europe. The product improves the results from the treatment of this very serious, early-childhood cancer substantially and in the long term.
- What do you believe are the greatest challenges in pharmaceutical development?
We could make a very long list for that. Pharmaceutical development is one of the most complex things that humans have ever come up with. To name two key challenges: the first challenge is that the product hoped for or designed actually has a sufficient, medically useful effect. Unfortunately, this is often discovered very late on, after years of work and the use of vast resources. Another difficulty is overcoming the unbelievably many hurdles or regulations that humanity itself has set – although with the good intention of protecting patients. However, these framework conditions impede, slow down and increase the price of already complex developments and in my opinion, are ethically problematic, for example, when it’s about the fight against life-threatening diseases such as cancer.
- Currently, your company is developing, among other things, a new, special immunotherapy against cancer. How elaborate is this research and what results are you expecting?
Every new innovative research and especially, development, is complex and challenging, as you are constantly breaking new ground. Our APN401 immunotherapy is unique in the world. This means that we cannot orientate ourselves around anything. Most of our steps are a combination of boldness, innovation and risk. An exciting challenge. We wouldn’t do it if we weren’t expecting excellent results: helping the immune system to activate itself against many kinds and stages of cancer so that it can keep these diseases in check, and without having greater side effects in the process.
- If you dared to glance into the future: what do you believe cancer therapy will look like in the year 2050?
2050 will probably be after my time, but perhaps I have helped it on a bit farther: in the future, cancer therapy will be less of a therapy AGAINST cancer, but rather one FOR the immune system. To me, the immune system is the key to conquering this complex phenomenon that we simply call cancer.
Services/grants provided by the Vienna Business Agency:
- Grants received through call "BEFOR Call 2003"
- Grants received through call "CoOperateEnlarged 2008"
- Grants received through call "Patients in Focus 2009"
- Grants received through call "TRANSKOOP WIEN"
- Grants received through call "FemPower 2012"
APEIRON Biologics AG