Cancer research at turbo speed
One year ago, US-born Dr. Steven Johnsen took over as Scientific Director of the new Robert Bosch Center for Tumor Diseases at the Bosch Health Campus. The institute is mainly involved in research of pancreatic cancer, colorectal cancer and lung cancer. In an interview, Johnsen talks about what the advantages of extramural research are and why horses were at the beginning of his career.
The concerns of patients are the guiding principle for the research work of Dr. Steven Johnsen and his team.
Dr. Johnsen, you have been Scientific Director of the Robert Bosch Center for Tumor Diseases (RBCT) at the Bosch Health Campus for a year. What has been the highlight of your work so far?
Actually, the biggest highlight is being able to build the institute the way I imagine it. Such an opportunity is rare. When you come to a university, there are usually existing structures, a relatively tight budget and staff that you have to take on. Here we could design everything ourselves and build a team that fits together perfectly. Thanks to the Robert Bosch Foundation as sponsoring institution, we also have the opportunity to purchase state-of-the-art equipment so that our infrastructure is far above average. Therefore, we have already been able to achieve very good results in a short period of time. And let us not forget the great help of people on site who, with their knowledge, made sure that everything got off the ground quickly.
In which areas have you already been able to achieve results?
We have already carried out many genome analyses with our own DNA sequencer. The aim of these genome analyses is to see how strongly particular genes are switched on or off in tumor cells. At university, you usually have to “stand in line” for this, because such a device is needed by many. If we want to carry out an experiment, we just go ahead with it and we have the data two days later, not only after two months. This allowed us to already test some hypotheses in a very short time. What is missing now is a good IT solution to analyse the data even faster.
Another example is single cell analysis. Here we examine individual tumor cells using two different methods. We use one device to carry out a so-called gene expression analysis, with another one we examine tissue sections and look at seven different characteristics of the cells, such as their protein structure and their spatial location in the tumor. In part, we can identify resistant cells in this way and thus infer whether chemotherapy is suitable for treatment.
Stained different cell types in a colorectal cancer tissue section.
In addition to the equipment and the fast pace, are there any other differences to university hospitals, possibly also disadvantages?
We have a very similar orientation as a university hospital, but we are smaller and more focused. On top of that, we have the Robert Bosch company as a large industrial partner on our side, which means that we can, for example, take certain developments into diagnostics much more quickly. A certain disadvantage is perhaps that we are always dependent on universities for the degrees of our junior researchers. Fortunately, we were welcomed with open arms by the rector of the University of Stuttgart and many colleagues there, so we will soon have a solid formal association with them. On the medical side, there is already very good contact with the University of Tübingen, whose teaching hospital has been the Robert Bosch Hospital for many years.
You have already conducted research at universities in Germany and the USA. How was your experience with the two science systems?
In Germany, it is like this: If you submit an innovative research proposal and justify your request well, you will usually receive financial support, whether from the German Research Foundation, German Cancer Aid or other third-party funding sources. In the USA, I know colleagues who, despite outstanding projects and excellent CVs, do not receive funding for their research because there are simply significantly fewer sponsors. Many of them have already had to give up due to this. In Germany, once you have cleared the hurdle from postdoc to group leader, you usually progress with good ideas.
From 2019 to 2022, Dr. Steven Johnsen was Professor of Medicine and Pharmacology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota (USA). Prior to that, he was W3 Professor of Translational Cancer Research at the Georg August University of Göttingen from 2014 to 2019. From 2012 to 2014 he held a W2 professorship at the Institute of Tumor Biology at the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendof (UKE), and from 2007 to 2012 he held a junior professorship in Göttingen. He completed his scientific training as a PhD student at the Mayo Clinic and as a postdoc at the UKE and at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg.
How did you get involved in cancer research?
My first interest in biology and genetics developed through horses. I am a huge horse lover and got my first own horse at the age of eleven. This was a so-called cremello. These are horses that have a particularly light colouring as a result of the inheritance of two “cremello genes” from golden-coloured parents. I wanted to know exactly how the inheritance of this particular coat colour works.
During my studies, I started to work on molecular biology at an early stage, the regulation of genes and transcription, i.e. the transmission of signals from the outside into the cell. Understanding how genes are switched on and off by certain signals is important for determining the “identity” of cells. I was not focused on cancer research from the very beginning. Today, however, the findings help to understand the profile of certain tumor cells. This is important because cells with certain profiles respond better to chemotherapy than others. This knowledge can then be transferred to the clinic.
A special feature of the Robert Bosch Center for Tumor Diseases is that it consists of a scientific and clinical part. What does this mean in practical terms?
When you create new projects in basic research, as a scientist you often ask yourself initially: What interests me? We, on the other hand, ask: What is important for the patients? This means that we initiate research projects that, if possible, will lead to clinical trials in five to ten years. We are looking for answers that are within reach and directly benefit those affected. This also makes it easier to explain to patients why we need their data. This way of working requires very good cooperation between scientists and clinicians. That is why the RBCT has also, in addition to myself as a Researcher, a Clinical Director, Prof. Hans-Georg Klopp from the Robert Bosch Hospital, with whom we have a close and trusting cooperation.
“Thanks to a certain amount of data, we can no longer just say retrospectively, but also prospectively, which tumors respond to which therapies.”
After a year of development work: What will be your focus in the future?
The working groups are ready and we are in the process of pursuing various goals. The aim now is to continue establishing ourselves, generating more data and attracting research funding. The first research applications have already been submitted. My goal would also be to have samples from all cancer patients at the Robert Bosch Hospital go through our analyses. It is only with a certain amount of data, that we can no longer just say retrospectively, but also prospectively, which tumors respond to which therapies. Cooperation with other clinics is also very important for this. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research has just confirmed that the Bosch Health Campus, together with the University Hospitals of Tübingen and Ulm, will form one of six National Centers for Tumor Diseases in Germany, the “NCT SüdWest” (NCT SouthWest). One of the many aims of this association is to improve cancer research and therapy through greater patient participation.