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Effective treatment for a growing number of cancer patients

Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment in which the body’s immune system is triggered to fight cancer. Orion’s immuno-oncology team develops novel and innovative drugs that help the immune system to fight against cancer.
2/14/2023 Author / Anni Turpeinen Photographer / Suvi Elo

Anil Thotakura, PhD, is the leader of research and development in Orion’s immuno-oncology team. The team identifies and validates new candidate precursor molecules, develops new methods for drug discovery and produces new knowledge about complex immunological mechanisms. Understanding those complex immune mechanisms enables the identification of cancer patients who would benefit from the treatment.

“Each cancer patient’s situation is different and their tumours can be very different, even within the same type of cancer. Multiple treatment options are therefore needed to ensure that each patient receives effective treatment. No cancer patient should be told that there is no suitable treatment,” says Thotakura.

No cancer patient should be told that there is no suitable treatment.

Immuno-oncological research is evolving rapidly

Cancer immunotherapy has achieved exceptional clinical results in multiple cancer types. However, the cancer fails to clear in a majority of cancer patients. Therefore there is a need to identify novel IO targets and cancer-supporting mechanisms, and these are the key focus of research within the IO team.

“We must constantly be aware of what has been discovered and the direction in which cancer research is progressing globally. We keep ourselves informed through our networks, which include universities, subject experts, scientific advisors and our partner institutes. We also read scientific publications, participate in conferences and share as much information and expertise as possible among ourselves,” Thotakura explains.

Attracted by top expertise

Thotakura became Head of the immuno-oncological team in 2020. Before joining Orion, he was involved in cancer research at top universities (Imperial College London) and biotechnology companies (Kymab & Microbiotica) in Great Britain for many years. He became interested in Orion because he was aware of Outi Vaarala’s (SVP, Head of R&D) reputation as an excellent immunologist. He had also heard that the Finns had been selected as the world’s happiest people for many consecutive years.

“Of course, an excellent opportunity for my career development was the decisive factor. I had the chance to start immuno-oncology research at Orion and put together a team of experts. I’m glad that I accepted the challenge: my team has doubled in two years, and we have achieved remarkable progress in initiating very exciting research projects. IO drug discovery projects include a diverse range of treatment modalities, i.e from small molecules to biologics such as bispecific antibodies and CAR-T cells,” Thotakura says.

I’m glad that I accepted the challenge: my team has doubled in two years, and we have achieved remarkable progress in initiating very exciting research projects.

Thotakura’s team consists of cancer researchers with a diverse range of scientific backgrounds, expertise and career paths. The team includes both young and experienced researchers, people with degrees in various fields, research assistants and students writing their Master’s and PhD theses.

“We are united by a good team spirit, which inspires us to work hard towards our important goal. We want to defeat cancer and find new treatment options for patients.”

Research driven by trust, quality and freedom

As team leader, Thotakura wants the team members to be treated equally regardless of their educational background or the stage of their career. Everyone’s opinion is valuable, as it’s not possible to know in advance which idea will drive the research towards a new pharmacotherapy for cancer.

“Stimulating ideas and questions discussed with colleagues often make you think of something about our research that you haven’t thought of before,” he says.

According to Thotakura, research integrity is the foundation of Finnish research work.

“We have low hierarchy in the organisation and a great deal of freedom to make decisions. This makes research work run smoothly. Freedom creates flexibility and momentum in an organisation in which trust, honesty and quality are key.”

Cancer researchers are motivated by their meaningful work

Immuno-oncology is a rapidly evolving field of science. New things are discovered constantly and there is always something interesting going on, which increases interest in this field of science. Orion must respond rapidly and must always be prepared to change the direction of research in light of new results. This keeps Thotakura and his team members busy.

“Although there are many cancer drugs on the market, not all cancer types respond to the current treatments,” Thotakura says.

The goal of Orion’s immuno-oncology team is to discover alternative IO drugs and provide better treatment options to ensure that more cancer patients receive effective treatment.

The more we understand, the more we want to dig deeper

“This goal motivates me every day. Our understanding of target molecules and cancer mechanisms is growing all the time. The more we understand, the more we want to dig deeper,” he says.

When not busy at work, Thotakura enjoys spending time in Finnish nature and walking in the forest with his son. In the morning, he takes his son to daycare and rides his bicycle to Orion’s location in Turku, rain or shine.

Anil Thotakura’s motto: Live in constant curiosity and love what you do.