Distance no barrier for international collaboration seeking new cancer treatments

Distance no barrier for international collaboration seeking new cancer treatments

Illuminate newsletter header, Summer 21/22
December 2021
When fellow Australians Professor John Silke and Dr Darryl McConnell met in Vienna, what followed was an international industry-academia collaboration to ‘drug the undruggable’ and find ground-breaking new treatments for cancer.

John

Professor John Silke
Professor John Silke investigates proteins that can regulate
both inflammation and cell death, and how these proteins
contribute to disease.

I was on a research trip in Switzerland in 2018 when I was invited to give a talk at Boehringer Ingelheim, at their headquarters in Vienna. Speaking with the research teams there, we realised there were many shared interests between our organisations, and I was invited back another two times. It was there that I met Darryl, and we immediately clicked. It was a very easy relationship straight away: he’s got a real passion and excitement for his work and a great drive, and we both saw the potential of working together. 

This led to us striking an industry-academia collaboration between WEHI and Boehringer Ingelheim to further investigate a family of proteins known as inhibitor of apoptosis proteins (IAPs) and their role in cell death. The partnership combines the expertise of both our organisations in the biology and therapeutic targeting of IAPs, protein degradation and drug discovery for new treatments for difficult-to-treat solid cancers. 

Targeted protein degradation is an exciting technology that is gaining momentum globally as a new approach for drug discovery. We believe that through this collaboration, we can apply this innovative IAP-based approach to a number of ‘undruggable’ disease targets that have proven difficult to treat through traditional drug discovery approaches. 

Darryl is a visual and creative person who is full of energy and ideas. I, too, like to have a picture in my mind of how molecules like IAPs work, although Darryl is a lot better than me at putting pictures on paper. I think this shared approach to trying to crack scientific problems really helps us connect.

"I’m most involved with the academic side of the research, but Darryl also has the industry acumen and expertise that is so vital in a project like this and the drive to get things done."

The collaboration has finally given me the chance to translate the knowledge that has been gained over the years into treatment candidates. While WEHI has had some success in this, it is still something that is quite tricky to achieve in the standard academic environment. Boehringer Ingelheim has been a great company to work with, and it has been a very ‘hands on’ collaborative relationship, including fortnightly meetings at opposite ends of the day, with free exchange of ideas and experience, as well as reagents. 

While my visit to Europe provided the spark to start the relationship, given our organisations’ shared values and goals, it seems to me that Boehringer Ingelheim, Darryl and his team are really the perfect partners, and I couldn’t have found a better fit if I’d scoured the world. It just goes to show that in science, much like any other industry, sometimes it is the chance encounters and the relationships you have with people that can lead to life-changing work. 

Dr Darryl McConnell
Dr Darryl McConnell hopes that his collaboration with
Professor Silke and his team at WEHI will lead to new 
treatments for cancer. 

Darryl

I first met John when he came to Boehringer Ingelheim’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria, where I am based, during a research visit. I was familiar with WEHI and John’s work – I was the token Aussie in Vienna who knew about WEHI’s talent and innovation – and wanted to learn more about it. Exploring newly emerging scientific opportunities that we could progress with our partners towards new treatments for patients is a key element of our strategy. 

John and I started talking and thought it would be terrific if we could work together on IAP protein degraders. We had a shared vision and interest, and I knew we would make a great team. 

Boehringer Ingelheim is a 135-year-old global pharmaceutical company, but it is also family owned. I think our long history in medical research and drug development has many similarities to WEHI’s history. Both organisations have reputations for tradition and innovation, two words that seem to have opposite meanings, but there are few organisations that have both. Boehringer Ingelheim has extensive experience in drug discovery and development and WEHI has expertise in IAP protein degraders. It was obvious to me that we would be well matched. 

"In research, and particularly in drug discovery, you need to be able to do things better than the competition. Boehringer Ingelheim and WEHI each have very specific knowledge in their respective subject areas, and we can each benefit from the other’s knowledge. That is what gives us an edge over competitors."

John and I are very like-minded. In the first few meetings I had with John, he showed me pictures of his work and I could tell he had drawn them himself. We have that in common. I’m also a keen drawer and like to be able to have graphic visualisations of what I am talking about. 

What crystalised from our relationship was a common vision. When you are working on these difficult projects for years, and sometimes decades, you need to have that passion in order to sustain the level of research intensity needed for success. You need to be a team and, most importantly, you need to be able to achieve things others can’t. That is what sets you apart in research. You need to have confidence in yourself and your team, but also the ability to question the status quo and ask how you could do things better. 

"With the joint team that John and I have in this collaboration, I know we can achieve great things and hopefully find new treatments for cancer."

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