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“Seed can only grow if it falls on fertile ground”

Translating scientific results into applications requires cooperation between science and industry. This can sometimes prove challenging, as it involves accommodating different cultures and perspectives while at the same time creating a win-win situation for both partners.

We had the chance to speak with the key players behind a very successful partnership between science and industry. Ruth Wellenreuther from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) and Holger Hess-Stumpp from Bayer share what led Bayer and DKFZ to form a partnership over ten years ago, why their collaboration has continued to this day, and the goals the two partners still want to achieve together.

Meeting of all members of the project team and the joint committee of DKFZ and Bayer in June 2018. At meetings of this kind, which take place regularly every one to two years, the responsible DKFZ and Bayer members exchange scientific and personal information. Image: DKFZ

How much experience did you previously have with research partnerships like this?

Hess-Stumpp: Bayer has obviously engaged in research partnerships with academic institutions with clear strategic objectives for many decades. We used to have budgets that were earmarked for this, and we knew certain researchers who we wanted to work with, or sometimes partnerships came together by chance. Today, our collaborations are based on what is known as “landscaping analyses,” which uses a very systematic and strategic approach. But working with DKFZ is something special for us. This partnership has lasted for over ten years now. In the beginning, back in 2008, we signed a two-year contract and have since extended it a number of times. In addition to this, we are continually adapting the focus of our work.

Wellenreuther: DKFZ has and is engaged in partnerships with a wide range of companies, too. Prior to this, we had already worked with Siemens in a broad-based strategic partnership like the one with Bayer.

So, what were the factors that prompted you to enter into this partnership?

Hess-Stumpp: For us as a company, it’s important to stay on the ball and keep pace with the latest developments in many areas. That’s the main reason we partner with research institutions. We have a certain amount of expertise in the company, but at the same time, we can’t always become experts in a completely new field in a very short time. This makes the complementary expertise our partners offer one of the key reasons for collaborating with them.

Wellenreuther: It’s also very important that the partners share the same vision for their work. This was true of our collaboration, and it meant we had the support of management on both sides—which is key.

Ruth Wellenreuther is in charge of the cooperation on behalf of the DKFZ. Image: DKFZ

What phases has your cooperation progressed through since it began?

Wellenreuther: We initially focused primarily on anti-angiogenesis, epigenetics, and other areas before stepping up our collaboration with a joint lab in 2013. We use the lab to pursue joint projects in the field of immunotherapy that are in the advanced stages. Immunotherapy is definitely something we’ve focused on since the beginning of our partnership. The joint lab has taken this to the next level, and employees from Bayer and DKFZ now work together there on common projects. We set up this joint lab because we had various projects with similar requirements in the field of immuno-oncology, and the lab made it possible to exploit the synergy between them. For us, the advantage is that we can continually expand our expertise in immuno-oncology. In academia, a high turnover is normal because fixed-term contracts are standard. The joint lab has allowed us to build up and maintain long-term expertise on t-cell assays, for example, with fewer staff changes. At the same time, the joint lab is also an outstanding training opportunity for postdocs who want to work in industry later on.

Beyond that, the structure of our collaboration hasn’t actually changed in any fundamental way. We have made adjustments to the contract at various points based on our practical experiences, of course. Despite all the obvious differences between a company and a research institution, we still share the goal of translating scientific results from cancer research into applications. It did take a couple of years for everyone on the committees to understand and accept what makes the other partner tick. Occasionally, a project we’re collaborating on might also be canceled for strategic business reasons. But this is the exception, and the partner’s explanations as to why are well-founded in such cases. It can, of course, be disappointing for the researchers sometimes when a project is shut down because of this, but I think that both sides have learned to understand the other partner’s perspective over the past ten years. Furthermore, the rights to the project then revert to DKFZ, so the researchers can continue to work on it.

Hess-Stumpp: And we’ve also been successful in identifying new topics on an ongoing basis during this time. This has led to continual changes in our content and shifts in the emphasis of our work.

Wellenreuther: Many of our topics have developed organically rather than being planned in a strategic way. Some project proposals fit into a very specific portfolio when the researchers come up with them. Not everything can be planned in a process like this.

Hess-Stumpp: You can’t plan everything in this environment. It’s always a question of how you respond to new scientific developments—both as a company and as a research center—so you can then address specific focal points.

Have you ever had opposing views on some of these issues?

Wellenreuther: There have been individual projects where we had different opinions. Put simply, a project can only work if both sides want it to. If we propose a project and Bayer isn’t interested, it won’t work. A seed can only grow if it falls on fertile ground. And this is true not only of our partnership as a whole but also at the operational level in the lab—because ultimately, it comes down to the individuals and whether they can work together or not. Having the right chemistry within the project team is an important factor for the success of the project. Unfortunately, that’s not something you can be certain of from the outset. You have to give it a try together first. But as far as the collaboration goes, we’ve never had a situation so critical that we thought we might not extend the contract next time.

Hess-Stumpp: That’s actually never been the case for us, either. We’ve had different perspectives on certain projects a number of times, of course. I still remember a critical discussion we had recently on a project proposal. Another example was a project we had in clinical development. Bayer then decided not to move forward with the development. DKFZ subsequently continued the project on its own. I see that as very positive, and I think it’s a good sign when that’s also possible within a partnership. Even after ten years of working together, we’re still getting involved in new fields, learning from each other, and looking at how we want to push forward in these areas. We are constantly stumbling onto tasks we don’t have a blueprint for. We then have to consider how we can move forward with this work together. That is another aspect of our cooperation that I find exciting.

At Bayer AG, Holger Hess-Stumpp is responsible for the strategic cooperation with the DKFZ. Bild: Bayer

You say your partnership has never been at risk of falling apart. What do you attribute that to?

Hess-Stumpp: I think it’s simply down to the success that we’ve had over the years. We have achieved various milestones together in the course of this partnership, and that has been one of the main drivers behind it as well. In summer 2019, we managed to bring a substance that we had developed together to the clinical trials stage for the third time.

What other successes have you achieved thanks to your combined efforts?

Wellenreuther: Our main goal is to translate knowledge of the molecular causes and processes of cancer into applications. And the milestones we achieve in our projects naturally represent successes in this context. How many projects have already been licensed out? How many are being used in clinical applications? These are key indicators that are important to us, of course. Ultimately, the scientific knowledge generated by our projects has led to joint publications in many cases. We take pride in this too, of course. I think those are the key factors behind our success—the projects that actually progress to the clinical level and joint scientific publications.

Hess-Stumpp: Learning together over the years has certainly been a huge success. As partners in the pharmaceuticals industry, we’ve also learned that publications are extremely important. It’s something we experience again and again when our substances enter clinical application and we’re asked, “Do you have any publications on this yet?” This has, to a large extent, allowed us to resolve an intrinsic conflict of interest that exists between publications on the one side and confidentiality on the other.

What else have you learned from each other?

Wellenreuther: In the past, academia has always viewed the industrial sector here in Germany as the bad guy, so to speak. Yes, of course a company wants to earn money. That’s not really a big surprise, because we live in a market economy. But some scientists still had a hard time with that. A lot has changed in this respect in recent years. Today, it’s simply a matter of, okay, we might have different perspectives on some things, but we also have a lot in common. It’s also important for the company to understand the molecular processes behind treatment methods. And for the academic partner, it’s important to also translate their results into applications and to be remunerated appropriately so they can then reinvest in basic research.

Sometimes the things we learn are very small, too—such as understanding how the pharmaceuticals industry looks at a potential treatment target compared to academia. These are very different viewpoints. Let me give you an example: A scientist made the interesting observation that cells stop dividing when a certain gene is inhibited. However, subsequent discussions have made it clear that this effect only comes about after the cell has divided more than ten times. This, of course, wasn’t a problem for the researcher who is looking at tumor cells in a petri dish. But you can’t wait that long when it’s happening in a patient, because ten or more cell division processes mean the tumor has grown massively. As a result, the proposed project was rejected. But the researcher left the discussions having experienced an aha moment. After all, they were a basic researcher, not a doctor.

What else do you want to achieve together?

Hess-Stumpp: We recently set up a Young Investigator Group together that focuses on the molecular biology of systemic radiotherapy. We still know relatively little about the molecular basis of systemic therapies using alpha emitters in particular. There is great interest in this on the part of academia, but it’s also incredibly important that we gain a better understanding of the molecular basis so we can develop these types of treatments. At the same time, there are also opportunities for us to launch new joint projects in this upcoming and exciting area.

A second aspect is that we want to take our cooperation in the clinical sector up another notch. Strategic initiatives between DKFZ and clinical partners are, of course, of particular interest for our cooperation because we want to take our joint projects into clinical application together as well. I expect that we’ll be able to transfer another substance or two that we’ve developed together into clinical application by the end of 2023, which is when our current contract expires. So we want to place a stronger emphasis on the clinical aspect of our partnership and step up our collaboration with DKFZ’s clinical partners.

Wellenreuther: Yes, we’re also making a concerted effort to push forward with the clinical development of our research results at DKFZ right now. I think we still have significant potential in this area. Many of the researchers and medical experts at DKFZ are also involved in the clinical setting and are naturally extremely interested in contributing their knowledge to the clinical development of our projects. But we also have to make sure we don’t forget to keep a steady supply of new, early-stage projects in the pipeline. It’s not always easy to maintain consistent levels of quality and involvement in all these fields. In other words, our work will continue to be challenging in the future, too.

Thank you for the interview.

The interview was conducted by Lin Wang and Christopher Kerth from the Innovation and Transfer Department at Helmholtz.

Since 2008, the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) and Bayer have been collaborating in a strategic alliance that focuses on the identification and early development of new treatment approaches for cancer. The goal of this partnership is to translate new scientific findings from cancer research into the development of new drugs or therapies as rapidly as possible.


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