Good terrorists trained in Tallinn lab

Vähiravi tootjate meeskond: Anne Meikas (vasakult), Jüri Laasik, Laura Kunder, Mart Raik ja Kairit Tints.

PHOTO: Liis Treimann

In Mustamäe, Tallinn, training is provided to blood cells acquired from Italian cancer patients during clinical trials so that, when back home, these may point out intestine cancer cells to sick organisms – the latter thus able to fight these more effectively.

This would be a simple summary of the production and effect of a totally new, super complicated, high tech and person-specific intestine cancer medicine. The medicine called MelCancerVac has been developed by a Danish firm DanDrit Biotech.

From before the Israeli and Californian laboratories, the right was snatched by Estonian biotechnology company Cellin Technologies.

Even a year after the contract was signed with the Danes, the latter’s CEO Mart Raik is surprised that Estonians succeeded in acquiring the production of the test drug prepared on totally new basis.

In a manner non-Estonian, as smilingly admitted by Mr Raik, the company founded in 2008 verily owns the latest models in top technology and for 1.5 years has owned a totally top level clean room lab. «What our girls (in the lab, the fine manual work on cells is accomplished by young lady molecular biologists – A. A.) are doing in there is top technology in medicine manufacturing,» he beams.

«Here, we have a training camp for good terrorists,» is the unexpected way Mr Raik jokingly summarises the entire idea. To put it a bit more sophisticated: this is a medical product of a trend totally new in the world of treatment called personal and regenerative medicine.  

Fighting cancer cells only

So what’s up in that outwardly bland building at the far end of Mustamäe, Tallinn?

From stage four intestine cancer patients in Italian hospitals participating in the programme, venous blood is harvested and brought to Tallinn. On the basis of cells from that very person’s blood, Cellin Technologies produces cell medicine meant for that person alone.

The medicine is produced in a clean room laboratory only accessible for trained production specialists clothed in one-time-use sterile overalls. During a week, the blood is «toyed with» so as to separate specific immune system cells i.e. dendritic cells. Thereafter, these cells are pre-trained with cell lysate prepared from skin cancer (melanoma). 

«Lysate is protein solution of destroyed cells. Here, we raise these cells up in large quantities, kill them by lysis, filtrate them, and what we have felt is what we need: the antigens or biomarkers characteristic of tumours,» says quality manager Kairit Tints. «Then, we send these tumour antigens to teach dendritic cells.»

Simply put, these are the trained cells: 15–25 million cells divided into five doses, the new medicine. These smart cells, after a week-long training camp, are ready to fly home to Italy while frozen, to be injected back into the patients over there by trained physicians. 250 millilitres of venous blood make for five doses making up a treatment – to be repeated up to three times during 18 months. 

In the patient’s body, with its natural immune system weakened by prior surgeries and chemo and radiation therapy, the medicine-cells will be teaching the immune system to seek for and kill any remaining cancer cells. This is important, as cancer cells are able to hide from the human immune system.

«Our cells tell the patient’s immune system which ones are the cancer cells, and that these need to be killed,» explains Ms Tints. «While chemo and radiation therapy also attacks healthy cells, the advantage of what we produce is that, as a result of the treatment, the organism will be attacking cancer cells only.»

The clinical tests only employ people with the moist advanced cases of intestine cancer, such as have exhausted all existing options.

According to Ms Tints, the main goal of the test is to show the effectiveness of the new medicine. In case the medicine really helps like preliminary research has shown – so that the final stage intestine cancer patients live for an average of three years instead of the average of 6 months – the medicine will also be applied to intestine cancer in earlier stages.

According to Mr Raik, they have told the Danes that the programme might involve Estonian patients as well. «The Danes believe this is possible and are working towards that,» he is hopeful.

All vaccine from Mustamäe

Up to now, no medicine has been produced for any patient in Mustamäe lab; even so, the entire process has been rehearsed to the detail and tested so the medicine would meet all quality requirements. At the moment, the specialists are preparing the lysate of melanoma cells – to be ready by April when the first blood comes from Italy.

«It’s a festive feeling to be in a place like that, not even trying to play modesty,» smiles Mr Raik. He’s also proud that while the initial idea was to only have Estonians do a tiny part of the process, now, after a year, they have succeeded to have the entire vaccine production for themselves.

What’s more: in addition to three-year contract to produce the medicine, the Estonian firm has also secured from Danes the global sole right to produce the lysate from melanoma cells.  

«No matter who and where will be producing the medicine later, we will be producing the lysate for it,» says Mr Raik.

«In this company, we detected great business potential and, therefore, we invested into it. To boost the economy, business has to be connected with science and research,» says Development Fund chief Pirko Konsa. The fund has invested €350,000 into Cellin Technologies.


Mart Raik

CEO of OÜ Cellin Technologies

What’s most important for me is the basic change of thinking in the world of medicines, as also enhanced by the personal intestine cancer cure produced by us. 

Up to now, we are going by the belief that as we buy a medicine from the pharmacy, it is good for me and for you just the same. This is the way we have thinking as long as there have been medicines. That aspirin is aspirin for us all. Not so, actually.

Globally, there’s this shift happening right now as regenerative (restorative) medicine cannot be anything but personal medicine. Coming to the cells from which we are producing the medicine, we are only talking about tour cells for you, my cells for me. Only your cells help you and my cells help me.

Regenerative and personal medicine has become a bit of a buzzword, but in the sense of cell treatment this isn’t the case. This is a fundamental change of thinking.

Pursuant to predictions, the change will take place during the next decade already.