Insights from protein pioneer Sir Greg Winter: “ Basic science and applied research always go hand-in-hand.”

27 January 2018

​​Among his many accolades, ‘the’ Sir Greg Winter invented the use of antibody repertoires (used in conjunction with phage display) and founded Cambridge Antibody Technology, the company that helped develop Humira, a ground-breaking antibody therapy for arthritis. We had the unique opportunity to speak with this front-running father of human antibody research during a visit to the VIB-UGent Center for Inflammation Research. We found out more about his thoughts on top academic concerns today, from funding and collaboration to career planning and beyond.

Knighted in 2004 for his contributions to molecular biology, Sir Greg Winter is a pioneer in the fields of genetic and protein engineering. In addition to founding three widely successful medical technology companies, he has won numerous awards in the UK and abroad, including the Royal Medal in 2011. He is currently Master of Trinity College and a Trustee of the Kennedy Trust for Rheumatology Research.

What do you feel is the relationship between basic and applied research?
Sir Greg: “Before I began to focus solely on the humanization of antibodies, my research revolved around pure science. Basic research presents opportunities that can be further developed through applied research - indeed the structural insights into antibodies revealed by basic science were fundamental to my applied work.”

In your opinion, what is key for success in fundamental research?
Sir Greg: “Collaboration is a huge source of inspiration in basic research. A concentration of other researchers in the same physical context promotes the exchange of information, observations and new ideas. In my opinion, research ‘nodes’ are important drivers of top research, and should be supported by governments. Our colleagues and peers provide us with that initial ‘spark’ that can lead us in fruitful directions.”

“Further to that, having a big group of researchers is certainly important to moving things forward at a rapid pace, if the funding is available. However, the size of the group should reflect its needs. In my experience, working with a large group ended up being challenging due to the wide range of scientific interests, which led me to opt for a smaller group later in my career. As I established my reputation, I also found that researchers were joining my team to work with me on topics from my past, rather than on what I had planned for the future. A focused team is a very powerful thing in basic research.”

What would you consider your ‘best experiment’?
Sir Greg: “There are different ways to define ‘best’, but in my case, I feel strongly that the medicines created from my antibody humanization research were my personal ‘best experiments’. In taking scientific insights and translating them into products that benefit a large number of people, you are doing something worthwhile for society.”

“In addition, moving research beyond proof-ofconcept and bringing it to the public in the form of a therapy for disease is also a validation of your work. Going ‘all the way’, so-to-speak, was personally important to me. Being fortunate in my support and the opportunities presented to me along my career path, I was able to contribute to successful translational science, from raw research insights all the way to clinical adoption.”

What do you think are the key drivers of successful technology translation?
Sir Greg: “Time is of the essence in tech transfer. The ability to move quickly, and a lack of overregulated processes help bring therapies to the market in a timely manner. Even more important, however, is to enable an environment in which researchers and tech transfer people collaborate very closely. I have observed that VIB does an excellent job at ensuring a good connection between the science and business sides of the process.”

Sir Greg Winter is a scientist, inventor and entrepreneur. His scientific career has almost entirely been based in Cambridge where his work has involved the development of technologies for making pharmaceutical antibodies by genetic engineering. Such antibodies have proved useful for treatment of cancer and immune disorders, and now comprise many of the world’s top-selling pharmaceutical drugs. These include the “humanized” antibodies Herceptin (for treatment of breast cancer) and Lucentis (for treatment of wet acute macular degeneration), and the human antibody Humira (for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis), currently the world’s top selling pharmaceutical drug. In order to see his technologies applied, Sir Greg founded several successful start-up companies, including Cambridge Antibody Technology in 1990 (acquired by Astra Zeneca in 2006), Domantis in 2000 (acquired by GSK in 2006) and Bicycle Therapeutics in 2010, which is developing a peptide product for treatment of cancer.

Sir Greg is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and has been Master of Trinity since 2012. He was elected a member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation in 1987, a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1990 and Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2006, as well as being a Fellow or Honorary Fellow of many other professional organizations. He has also been awarded numerous prizes and medals, and received a Knighthood for services to Molecular Biology in 2004.

Greg Winter
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