Cure the incurable – Johan Hyllner on future opportunities with cell and gene therapy
Johan Hyllner, AstraZeneca

“Things are progressing quickly now. All major pharmaceutical companies are interested in cell and gene therapy, especially in oncology. It is developing to be as big as antibodies and regular medicines,” says Johan Hyllner, Senior Director, Head of Cell and Gene Therapy, CVRM, at AstraZeneca. You can hear more from Johan on September 26 at the Park Annual event in Gothenburg.

Publish date: 2019-08-23 Text: 
Lizelotte Edvinsson

What will you be talking about?

“I will be discussing the future possibilities of cell and gene therapy to cure diseases which are today incurable. Of course, this raises hope for patients, so it feels a little uneasy to say it but, at the same time, it is true. I’ll provide an international outlook on advanced therapies, as well as local examples of collaborations and projects in progress.

Can you give us a taste of your expectations for the future?

“A lot of therapies for rare diseases will be developed with the new genetic technologies available. This relates to small patient groups but concerns treatments that are important for each individual. Once you have succeeded with one disease, it makes it a bit easier to widen the therapy to other diseases.”

Referring to a medicine, recently approved in Sweden, used on children with a type of blood cancer who have not responded to previous treatments, Johan Hyllner explains that there is already cell therapy showing impressive results.

“Many other stem cell-based drugs are still experimental. But in cancer, especially with regard to “liquid tumours” such as blood cancer, things are progressing quickly. However, finding a cure for solid tumours is still the holy grail in oncology.”

How are we doing in Sweden compared to other countries?

“We are doing well. This is a type of precision medicine, which is a prioritised area in Sweden. There are other countries in Europe that are ahead of us in development. Mainly the UK, I would say. They made a big investment six years ago and it is starting to produce results. Now, many companies are conducting their clinical studies and establishing their production there.”

I love research. I don’t like the label research entrepreneur, but that’s probably what I am really.

Johan Hyllner worked in London for five years as Head of Research at Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult. An organization, backed by the UK Government, which helps cell and gene therapy companies to translate early stage research into commercially viable and investable therapies.

In Sweden, several efforts and initiatives in advanced therapies are underway through programs set up by Vinnova and others.

Not only does Johan Hyllner have experience of working in large international companies and organizations, he has also started companies and managed life science companies in their early stages, for example, Cellartis and Vitrolife. For several years, he has also been an adjunct professor at Linköping University.

“I love research. I don’t like the label research entrepreneur, but that’s probably what I am really.”

What motivates you?

“Basically, being able to cure people. I’m also driven to see young people develop. Several of the students I taught in cell biology at the university are now cell biologists here at AstraZeneca. It is fun to see results, to be able to contribute with experience and to inspire others to take the next step. This, in combination with building organizations to manage cell and gene therapy, which we are now also doing at AstraZeneca, is very stimulating.”