Meet alumnus Sebastian Carotta, who leads a research team within the Cancer Research and Cancer Immunology Department at Boehringer Ingelheim in Vienna.
Sebastian moved to Melbourne in 2004, describing the experience as “exciting but also frightening to move to the other side of the world”, and joined Professor Stephen Nutt’s lab at WEHI as a post doc, working on the transcriptional regulation of B, T and NK cell lineage commitment.
Although his immunology knowledge before starting in Stephen’s lab was rudimentary, he quickly got up to speed and started to love the immune system. “The training I received in Steve’s lab and in the immunology department is the reason I’m now working in cancer immunotherapy, and it’s where I think the future of successful cancer therapies lie,” he explains.
In 2011, Sebastian had the opportunity to run his own lab at WEHI. “Suddenly being responsible for directing the research of my own group was a delicate balance between asking big important questions while also delivering results quickly to be competitive for funding. It was an exciting and sometimes also a tough journey.”
Sebastian recalls that one of his highlights at WEHI was working with Professor Don Metcalf, regarded as the ‘father of modern haematology’. “His vast experience and especially his love and dedication to science, still coming to the lab every day to perform his experiments, his willingness to talk to us about science all the time, this I will always remember.”
Another was the ‘bed to bench’ initiative that Professor Doug Hilton had organised, where WEHI scientists would tag alongside oncologists at the Royal Melbourne Hospital for a week. “Seeing the human aspect of cancer when we went on the rounds was transformative. This one week changed the focus of my research and I decided that I would move from basic science to translational science,” he says.
After departing WEHI eight years ago, Sebastian moved back to Vienna to lead a research team at Boehringer Ingelheim. In 2017, he started research on a novel cancer immunotherapy target, which entered Phase I clinical trials last year.
“A moment I will never forget is a meeting with the oncologists running our Phase I trial and seeing the first positive response data, the shrinkage of a treated tumour in a patient. There is still a long way to go for possible approval, but knowing our work at least made some difference to one cancer patient drives me to work harder on better therapies,” says Sebastian.
This year Sebastian was promoted to the role of Senior Scientific Director in the Cancer Research Department, tasked with researching emerging areas that could become the next wave of cancer immunotherapies. His main focus is to investigate the interaction between cancer cells and immune cells – specifically the effect that targeted therapies have not only on cancer cells but the tumour microenvironment; and identifying novel targets that induce immunogenic cell death in cancer cells.
Somehow Sebastian also finds time for another passion: gin. After four years and more than 200 experiments, he created two pretty special varieties and founded The Scientist Gin in May last year.
“It started with Melbourne’s coffee scene where I met several coffee roaster friends,” he explains.
“I really admired their scientific approach to roasting – testing so many parameters and writing in their ‘coffee lab books’. Back in Vienna I travelled to London to buy my own coffee roaster, playing with the idea of opening my own coffee company – a Melbourne-style third wave cafe.
“While in London I also visited a famous gin distillery and did a one-day gin making workshop. So I went home with a coffee roaster and a distil. In the end, gin won!”
Sebastian is passionate about experimenting with rare botanicals that only grow in specific regions of the world. “Most of the time my experiments fail, but every now and then you find ‘the one’, it’s a fabulous experience.” In addition, The Scientist Gin is experimenting with fusion gins combining the specific flavours of different spirits with the characteristics of gin. In spring they will launch their new summer drink “LemonGINello” and “AranGINello”, a combination of their gins with their own handmade Limoncello and Arancello.
It took more than a year to produce two signature gins, working with the basic ingredients juniper, angelica and orris root, and carefully weighing the flavour profiles, often with the help of friends, in blind tastings of individual test series. Around 700 of the two varieties of gin have already been sold and are in circulation in his hometown of Baden, about a 40-minute drive from Vienna.
During COVID, The Scientist Gin released a Stay Safe Pack, with three signature gins and a bonus hand sanitizer made in strict accordance to the WHO protocol.
It’s an exciting time for Sebastian and his business partner. Their new bottles are due to arrive soon and are inspired by Erlenmayer flasks. “Hopefully the company makes enough profit soon so that I can go on discovery expeditions to remote regions and try botanicals specific to that region. With gin, you can truly highlight the wonderful varieties that nature gives us,” he explains.
While The Scientist Gin focuses on the European market, Sebastian is hoping to expand soon to other regions.