It was the love for hiking that brought Dorothee to Innsbruck. Starting in her forties, having discovered that she thoroughly enjoyed being in the mountains, the medical researcher went on many hiking vacations in the small federal state in western Austria. One time, after a hiking tour with the alpine association of Tyrol, Dorothee got together with her fellow hikers. Drinking, singing and dancing, she told a Tyrolean about her dream to live and work in Tyrol. Thinking she was looking for some sort of a temporary employment, the Tyrolean assured her they would find her a job there. “What kind of work are you looking for?” he asked. “When I replied ‘a professorship in virology’ and saw his incredulous face, I knew they couldn’t really help me with that,” she laughs.
But as fate would have it, Dorothee still ended up in Innsbruck, where she would soon start work on a virus that could bring about a breakthrough in the treatment of cancer. A few weeks after the hiking trip, Dorothee was at a conference, “It was quite boring, so I surfed the web – and guess what I found? An online ad for a professorship for virology at the Medical University of Innsbruck!”
Ready for Innsbruck
With her youngest daughter just having finished high school that year, Dorothee was ready for a new challenge. Her two older children had already left the house – they now live in Hamburg and Northern Hessen – and so the time really was ripe for Tyrol. At the job interview for the professorship in Innsbruck „the interviewers could see by the look on my face that I really, really wanted this,” Dorothee says.
Something else that Dorothee has always wanted is making sure that her research not only increases knowledge but also has a real-time medical impact. „Although it’s nice to have papers in top publications, for me it’s more satisfying to know that there are patients that have benefitted from me being around,” she says.
Thus, relatively early on, Dorothee started applying her research. In the 1990s, she developed a new therapy for HIV infections and in 2000 she founded her first startup in Germany, eventually licensing the HIV therapy to a bigger pharmaceutical company. “After that, I thought I’d continue doing research in peace and quiet,” Dorothee says. During 2011, a project she was working on in Innsbruck involving an oncolytic virus for cancer treatment was going so well, “I got this tingling in my fingers. I didn’t just want to publish a scientific paper on the virus. I wanted to make it work in real life,” she says. And that’s how Vira Therapeutics was born.
Not just pipe dreams
At the beginning, Dorothee was reluctant to found a new startup all by herself – until CAST Tyrol came around and put her in touch with co-workers, and her current business partner, who will become the manager of the company in the future. “I like working in tandem,” she says. “As a woman I’ve never really had this attitude ‘I’m so amazing, let’s do this’. I need companions, and reassurance from outside that I’m not having pipe dreams.” Vira Therapeutics was officially founded in April 2013 by a team of three scientists and a biotech manager as a spin-off of the Medical University of Innsbruck under the leadership of Dorothee von Laer.
So what’s this oncolytic virus and what does it do? “Viruses need cells or tissue to multiply,” Dorothee explains. “There is a small group of viruses that only multiply in tumor cells and they’re called oncolytic viruses.” Systematically reproducing, these viruses destroy cancer cells in the process; a major advantage for treating metastasising tumors of all types of cancer except leukemia.
In patients, however, the natural virus can bring about severe side effects like encephalitis. With the genetically modified VSV-GP virus, Dorothee and her team have been working on, however, these side effects are taken out, while retaining the tumor-destroying effect. Administered intravenously, the virus finds the tumor and destroys it. And in contrast to other oncolytic viruses, Dorothee’s can be injected repeatedly without losing its potency – a big comparative advantage.
A step towards curing cancer
Dr. Lisa Egerer Photo credit: BLICKFANG photographie“If it delivers what it promises in animal models, then this is a real breakthrough,” she says. In experiments with mice, the tumor was gone within ten days and didn’t come back. “Of course, with humans, I doubt that it will happen this fast. I don’t want to say that we will be the first to cure tumors – but it’s a step in that direction.“
For Dorothee, it’s not so much about the business life but about the thrills of research that will a have a real impact on people’s lives. “The business side of my work exists merely so I can find money to finance the project. Others can get rich with it, that’s not my primary intention,” she says. “When I kick the bucket, I would like to know that I have achieved that something that transcends me, […] the feeling of having left something lasting beyond me.” For Dorothee, this endeavor also has a personal dimension. “My partner has cancer, which gives me even more motivation to tackle this project with all my heart,” she says.
Until any patient can actually be treated by the virus, however, it will take at least another two and a half years. Dorothee and her team will have to deal with a vast amount of regulatory work and clinical trials, including safety tests in certified laboratories not only on mice, but also on dogs that are already suffering from tumors. Additionally, a producer will need to develop a proper production process for the product, as the material produced in the laboratory cannot be administered to patients.
Good things take time – and money
The cost to produce the virus based on clinical standards will amount to three quarters of a million euros. Experiments in laboratories with mice and dogs will make up 600.000 to 700.000 euros, with the overall estimated cost reaching around two million euros – excluding wages. “Until 10-15 patients have been treated with the product, you usually have to spend around eight million euros,” Dorothee says.
Parts of Vira Therapeutics’ R&D are financed through public grants, which need to be counter financed by private funds. “It’s not a complete catastrophe at the moment, because we do have a very good product,“ Dorothee says. “But the situation is definitely different from ten years ago, when you could basically choose which funding you wanted.”
When Dorothee founded her first startup in Germany, in times of the biotech boom, she immediately entered into a partnership with a pharmaceutical company which covered her expenses. “Times were different then, I didn’t have to apply for grants for a long time. But now, venture capital is very weak in Europe. With her pharmaceutical research and development, Dorothee’s project belongs to the “higher risk returns” category. “It can take six years for big cash to come in – and that’s a very long time for venture capital,” she says. For now, ViraTherapeutics therefore sticks to winning prizes: the CAST Award 2011 special award of the jury, the Best of Biotech 2012, and the Tiroler Innovationspreis 2012, to name only a few.
Looking back, Dorothee says, “I always thought that when I retired I would get a little chalet in the Tyrolean mountains where I would happily write scientific books. Little did I know that I would start a scientific company.” Although she hasn’t found her chalet in the mountains yet, she does live in a Tyrolean farm house right by the woods, along with her partner, two dogs, three cats, and a couple of ducks. And the mountains are right behind her house to go hiking. “What more can I ask for?” she asks and, after few moments, answers the question herself: „A little more time. I have more ideas than time and money.”
Interview by Stefanie Rauchegger
In partnership with CAST Tyrol