“Cancer is the most common cause of death in the world. Our goal in developing new and innovative drug therapies is to bring cancer under control, to prevent its recurrence, prolong the life expectancy of cancer patients and in the best case even cure a patient,” says Marcin Chrusciel, leader of Orion’s Antibody Drug Conjugates unit.
The unit led by Chrusciel is part of the oncology research department. The team mainly consists of biologists, whose aim is to identify new target proteins and study their suitability for antibody-drug conjugates. When the team has gathered enough evidence of the potential of a target protein, it proposes it as a new drug candidate for drug development.
Antibody-drug conjugates are based on the identification of the unique characteristics of cancer cells. When a target protein that does not exist in most healthy cells is identified, affected cells can be destroyed by precision-targeting the cancer cells and tissue with a cytostatic agent using antibodies.
Compared to traditional cytostatic treatments, antibody-drug conjugates directly target cancer cells, preserving healthy cells, which makes them a more effective as well as better-tolerated treatment for many cancer patients.
A cancer researcher who loves challenges
Chrusciel, who studied biology and earned his doctorate at the Polish Academy of Sciences, moved with his family to Finland originally to do post-doc research at the Department of Physiology of the University of Turku. However, his ambitions led him elsewhere.
“I joined Orion in Turku in 2018 as a molecular scientist and after my first project came to an end, I swiftly moved onto the next one. My manager soon noticed that my approach to work and competence building was very flexible and I realised as well that I enjoy change. I have since moved from one role and challenge to the next within Orion. I was appointed the lead of Orion’s antibody-drug conjugate team in autumn 2022,” Chrusciel says.
“I love laboratory work and science. What motivates me most is testing new things, observing, learning and problem solving. I am energised and empowered by discussions with other experts. As a manager, I want to see my team members progress in their careers. This is also central to Orion’s corporate culture in general: we value each other’s expertise.”
In-depth expertise and perfect timing behind drug discovery
The work of Chrusciel’s team requires that several things fall into place at the same time, which could not happen without the skills of his expert team.
“For a treatment to be effective, we need to find the right target protein and the optimal antibody-drug conjugate for it,” Chrusciel says.
“All this demands in-depth expertise from the research organisation in all areas of drug research and development. Given that many pharmaceutical companies are working on their own antibody-drug conjugate therapies at the same time, the company that manages to bring together the elements of this complex therapy in the optimal manner will reap success.”
Chrusciel says that Orion aims to carry out this work with the right talent and at the right time, relying on its own technological competence. In his view, Orion’s best competitive asset globally is its expertise in chemistry.
Selecting the right patients is essential for the antibody-drug conjugate therapy to be successful – typically the selection is based on presence of the target protein in the patient’s cancer cells. Although the treatment is not suitable for all patients, those eligible for the treatment have had good results.
Drug development is a race against time
“While cancer treatments have developed in the past few years, advanced cancers have a high recurrence rate. Antibody-drug conjugates have shown significant results in patients with recurring cancer that cannot be treated with other drugs or operated on. Although antibody-drug conjugates are currently not the first-line treatment for cancer, new technological advances in this field may change this in the future.”
Orion has invested in research on antibody-drug conjugates for a few years, and many other companies have studied them for a longer period of time. There are currently more than ten different antibody-drug conjugates in clinical use for both haematological cancers and solid tumours. The first of them received market authorisation in the early 2000s.
“Our objective is to ramp up research and development. We are open to new technologies and, together with Orion’s bioinformaticians, we utilise the latest data available, and we network,” Chrusciel says.
“This work can sometimes involve difficult decisions, such as aborting a project. Such difficult decisions must be made promptly – and then we must simply refocus our resources on our next goal.”
A top researcher at home in Finland
Turku has proved a perfect place for the Chrusciels to live, although ending up in Finland was partly a coincidence. In their choice of location, it was a priority to have good career opportunities for both parents and a safe environment for the children to grow up in. The family has since fully integrated into Finland and adapted to the Finnish way of life.
Chrusciel loves fishing and enjoys his solo boat trips that can last a few days. For him, they represent quality time that recharges his brain.
And if the fish are not needed for dinner, he releases his catch back into the sea, the ecosystem where they belong. Although Chrusciel keeps dreaming of bigger fish, it is important for him not to cause them unnecessary harm.
Marcin Chrusciel’s motto: Go big or go home
“As a scientist, I am not that interested in the minutiae; the big picture is what matters. Orion wants to succeed as a developer of new drugs, and this means that it has to be brave enough to dream big.”