Lithuanian scientists aim to be at the forefront of the new breakthrough in medicine
Lithuania has more than enough potential to become one of the leaders in the biotechnology field. This is the conviction of Agnė Vaitkevičienė, the head and the co-founder of the first and so far the only producer of individualised advanced therapy medicinal products (ATMPs) in the Baltic countries. According to her, medicines developed according to the needs of each patient are the future of medicine, to which Lithuania also contributes.
Lithuania is becoming a leader in Eastern Europe
The head of Froceth says that the treatment of diseases that have, for a very long time, been considered fatal has progressed considerably in the last decade. One such disease is cancer. The breakthrough in the fight against it begins with the so-called immunotherapy, which is increasingly being applied in additional to proven methods, such as chemotherapy.
Medicines developed according to the needs of each patient are the future of medicine, to which Lithuania also contributes.
“Discussions about the treatment emerged in the 1980s but a more broad application of this approach began only in the last decade. Professionals from all over the world agree unanimously that combining immunotherapy with traditional treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy can achieve significantly better results,” says Ms Vaitkevičienė.
Lithuanian scientists contribute to this important medical evolution. In its labs, Froceth has developed a method for modifying blood cells obtained from the patient’s body to prepare a dendritic cell preparation. It is saturated with cancer antigens and matured properly. Upon re-entering the patient’s body, the cells activate the lymphocytes that are necessary to fight against cancer. In natural conditions, dendritic cells do all of this by themselves but in the event of illness, they are prevented from doing so by the disease.
“All healthy people have cells that, due to a wide range of environmental and genetic factors, can be upset and begin to act strangely. If the immune system is able to curb them, the disease does not spread. However, if the body is in a damaged or weakened state, the complications may even involve cancer. Immunotherapy helps to strengthen the human immune system, return it to its normal state, re-educate it to eradicate the cancer cells,” explains the head of Froceth.
Despite that, immunotherapy is not magical or even a suitable form of treatment for everyone. Dendritic cell therapy only cures “hard” tumour cancers. Blood cancer treatment requires other personalised tools, such as genetic engineering.
According to Jan Aleksander Krasko, the production manager of UAB Froceth, in cases where active immunotherapy, i.e. dendritic cell treatment is not enough for the patient, the situation is salvaged by another modern cancer treatment method: CIK cells (cytokine-induced killer cells). During the procedure, the lymphocytes found in the donor’s body, one of the most abundant immune cells, are isolated and separated from the remaining blood components and transformed into CIK cells. Upon entering the patient’s body, CIKs immediately travel to the tumour site and begin killing cancer cells.
“The best results are achieved by combining both therapies. It allows to take advantage of both the speed of passive therapy and the long-term effectiveness of active therapy. CIK and dendritic cells operate on very different principles but at the same time, they create a broad and complex response to cancer,” says J. A. Krasko.
Although only dendritic cell therapy is currently used in the Baltic countries, laboratories work intensively with CIKs too. Froceth scientists are hoping that Lithuanians will very soon be treated by using two different cell products. Lithuania would thus become the undisputed leader in the field of immunotherapy in the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe, and an equivalent partner to the Western medicine.
Most patients – from abroad
Froceth has also opened an unrivalled adipose tissue bank in Lithuania, which operates in premises built in accordance with the requirements of Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP). It has been built for the treatment, storage and distribution of adipose tissue-derived stromal vascular fractional cells. Cells stored at the bank are able to restore damaged tissue functions and can be used up to 20 years after their preparation.
Ms Vaitkevičienė has no doubt that the future of medicine belongs to individualised treatment. Its most important feature is that it concentrates on specific people rather than on statistical units.
“Individualised treatment means that the cells or tissues taken are of a particular person and the lab preparations are based on his or her diagnosis. This is not chemical drugs, this is a completely new way of treatment,” says the head of Froceth.
Individualised medicine is by far the most attractive to foreign citizens. Patients from other European Union and Asian countries come to Lithuania for treatment. However, Ms Vaitkevičienė claims that Froceth does not focus exclusively on foreigners. On the contrary, Lithuania already has the conditions in place that allow to obtain such treatment services by way of exception.
“If a doctor finds a disease and believes that immunotherapy is the way to go, the exception approved by the Ministry of Health allows to start treating the patients. So far, not all Lithuanian doctors appreciate such exception. Some of them avoid offering their patients innovative methods until they are registered. Nevertheless, we are seeing gradual changes,” she says.
Traditional treatments will change
At the moment, advanced immunotherapy measures are applied at the same time as the traditional ones but Ms Vaitkevičienė believes that the development of the biotechnology sector will reveal new treatments that will be even more effective in treating diseases, such as cancer.
“The discussions on genetic engineering are becoming increasingly more active and will fundamentally change our understanding of human health in the future. By modifying the genes, it will be possible to change the human immune system itself and prevent many diseases,” she predicts.
Froceth does not shy away from its ambitious plans to actively contribute to the transformation of these ideas into reality. However, the most important thing today is to ensure smooth cooperation of scientists both amongst themselves and with businesses.
“Nobody achieves anything alone in the biotechnology sector. Lithuania, even considering its small size, has a high enough human potential. Our scientists are spreading our name all over the world. The only thing we do need is more synergy,” believes Ms Vaitkevičienė.
Invests both in research and in the young generation of scientists
Today, one of Froceth’s main partners is the National Cancer Institute (NCI). It is with the researchers of the NCI that a project is being carried out aimed at further improving the efficiency of immunotherapy by saturating dendritic cells with the most targeted cancer antigens possible.
Froceth works together with Lithuanian educational and research institutions, university hospitals, foreign researchers from Sweden, Austria, the Czech Republic and other EU countries.
“In order to develop the field of individualised therapy in Lithuania, we constantly invest in research, participate in scientific projects, cooperate with Lithuanian and foreign biotechnology companies, educational institutions and other tissue banks. We are also very serious about the education of cell therapy specialists, their training, internships,” says Ms Vaitkevičienė.
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