Prize-winning innovator focused on immunotherapy
9 November 2020
Over the past decade, more and more biopharmaceuticals have been developed for anti-cancer immunotherapy. Sara Mangsbo is actively contributing to their development with her research group, and has also started three companies. She was recently awarded the Uppsala University Innovation Prize, Hjärnäpplet, for her ability to combine research and entrepreneurship.
“Sara Mangsbo works in a systematic, focused way to turn her research into innovations,” So goes the citation, which also highlights “her ability to put her research findings to use by developing business ventures, engaging others and leading them.”
She herself was pleasantly surprised when she received the news.
“I’ve probably never been so taken aback by an award, because I’m both fairly young and a woman, in contrast to many previous recipients of the Prize. I’ve probably never been so pleased, either; being noticed by your employer is especially gratifying.”
Alongside her research, Mangsbo is involved in three different companies. The first, Immuneed, was founded in 2014 and has developed a method of visualising immunological effects of biopharmaceuticals in the blood. Today, the firm has a growing market and Mangsbo is a board member. Ultimovacs, where she is Chief Development Officer, develops immunotherapy-based treatments, and is currently engaged in both preclinical and clinical evaluations of drug candidates.
The third company, VivoLogica, seeks to help researchers in drug development to digitise their lab work. She also has a completely new company concept in mind.
“It’s an embryo of a company that we hope we can get started by year end. It’s about trying to realise completely individualised immunotherapy with biopharmaceuticals.”
Mangsbo’s field, immuno-oncology (immunological treatment of cancer), is developing fast. It involves, instead of using cytotoxic drugs, strengthening the body’s own immune system to combat tumour diseases. Around 2011, the first immunotherapies entered clinical practice, and 2014 saw the advent of even more antibodies that help the immune system maintain its targeted, tumour-killing effect. Two years ago, this research field was recognised with a Nobel Prize, which further boosted interest.
“There are some individuals who respond very well to these therapies, and can in fact completely get rid of a tumour that would otherwise have killed them within a few months. Clinics and researchers alike are fascinated by the fact that some people respond very well to the treatment, but we also wonder what more we can do, because it doesn’t work for everyone.”
Continuous development is in progress to boost the patients’ own immune systems enough to be able to combat the tumour. Mangsbo and her research group are particularly interested in the body’s lymphocytes.
“Today we have antibodies, used as medicines, that can boost an existing immune response against a tumour. But their efficacy still depends on the tumour having done the basic job of ensuring that the lymphocytes exist. But what we want to do now is make sure we create new lymphocytes.”
It was during a student exchange in Canada that Mangsbo took her first course in advanced immunology. In 2004, while attending the undergraduate Biomedicine Programme at Uppsala University, she spent an exchange semester at McGill University.
“It was somewhere there that I got hooked on immunology. The professor on the course told us about these signalling pathways that keep the immune system in check, and the molecule that the Nobel Prize was later awarded for. She said it would revolutionise clinical treatments.”
Back in Uppsala, she approached cancer researcher Thomas Tötterman and asked whether they had a student project. She was then admitted to the then Uppsala Graduate School of Biomedical Research (UGSBR), where she worked on projects at both AstraZeneca and Affibody. After this, she started her doctoral education.
Her connection with the pharmaceutical industry dates back to her time as a doctoral student, since her supervisor Tötterman was collaborating with various companies. As a PhD student in the Netherlands, she also became involved in a collaborative project between various subject disciplines and industry.
“Then, I thought it was exciting to move my research towards something that also gets clinically tested, and in 2012 I joined the IVA [Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences] Mentor4Research mentor programme. But it wasn’t until 2014 that I took the plunge and started a company.”
In recent years, she has led her own research group, as part of the University’s biopharmaceuticals initiative. Several students in the group are now getting close to completing their PhDs.
What’s it like to have two different roles and combine research and entrepreneurship?
“I think it’s extremely rewarding. There’s an enormous amount of knowledge in the industry that we in academia need to be exposed to, and vice versa. The challenge is time – being able to get everything done, and managing all the contacts – because the growing network is extremely useful. That means that you almost always end up short of time.”
What’s your best tip for researchers who are thinking of going in for entrepreneurship?
“Take a chance, get out of your comfort zone and dare to listen and ask questions that may not belong to your normal everyday life. Be curious, quite simply.”
Personally, she thought taking the plunge was a little scary.
“You don’t really know what you’re getting into because you haven’t been down that road before. It was new, a bit challenging and not completely obvious, but I got huge support from the innovation system, my mentor and the network I’d built from Mentor4Research. Creating a broad network has been immensely important.”
In future, she hopes to be able to personally invest in companies and, as a coach and mentor, contribute to their development, as a way to give back.
Is Uppsala a good place for doing this kind of thing?
“Yes, I think so. There are now many people who’ve entered the innovation system and are working together to drive Uppsala’s entrepreneurship and innovation capacity. We also hope we can raise enough money for the innovation system so we can establish slightly larger companies.”
Facts: Sara Mangsbo
Title: Associate Senior Lecturer/Assistant Professor at the Department of Pharmaceutical Biosciences.
Recent news: 2020 winner of the Uppsala University Innovation Prize – Hjärnäpplet.
In my spare time: Gravel cycling. And I bake lots of sourdough bread.
Latest books read: Bombmannens testamente (“The Bomb Man’s Testament”) by Lena Ebervall and Per Samuelson, and Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito.
Hidden talent: Very good at crocheting.
Get my best ideas: When I’m exercising or when I wake up in the morning.
Driving force as a researcher: Trying to solve something that makes a difference for someone else. Immuneed is the example that has gone furthest, really makes a difference, fills a need in the industry and also has an ambition to minimise risks for people involved in clinical trials.
Role models: I have many role models. Today I’d like to highlight my former colleague Gunilla Ekström, with her long experience of drug development, and Maria Jernelid, my friend and fellow student on the Biomedicine Programme. She works for a global company and has a way of seeing people and getting them to work forward to a common goal. So in her leadership, she’s a role model for me.