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Christoph Schächtele – searching for cancer inhibitors

“You really have to enjoy the whole process,” said Dr. Christoph Schächtele, Director of ProQinase GmbH. It takes several years to turn an anti-cancer substance into a marketable product. And there is no guarantee that the hefty and onerous amounts of research work will eventually be successful. The biologist nowadays feels very comfortable at being at the interface of management and oncological research – his love for the profession enables him to cope with the difficult times. However, at the moment he also has good reason to be cautiously optimistic. In cooperation with other partners, ProQinase has developed a substance that inhibits important enzymes involved in tumour growth. And the chances of the substance becoming an anti-cancer drug are fairly good.

Dr. Christoph Schächtele © private

Originally, Dr. Christoph Schächtele, who was born in Wolfenweiler near Freiburg in 1954, wanted to become a teacher. It had never occurred to him that he might one day become director of the company ProQinase GmbH in the Tumour Biology Centre in Freiburg. One of his ambitions was to be able to present complicated scientific issues in an easy to understand way. He studied biology and chemistry in Münster between 1974 and 1980, which gave him the necessary background to become a school teacher. He spent some time teaching at a grammar school when he was a student. "However, my idealism quickly fell apart when I was faced with the reality of teaching classes of 35 - 40 students, with little support from the permanent teachers," recalled Schächtele. He turned to science and did his thesis on the biochemistry of enzymes that regulate the spinach metabolism. He continued with biochemical research in his doctoral thesis and learned to isolate, characterise and identify enzymes in different plant tissues. "These were all techniques that are still part of the work I do now," said Schächtele.

An awakening talent

Protein kinase carrying an inhibitor in its centre. © Dr. Christoph Schächtele

After his doctorate, Schächtele went on to work in industry. His knowledge of enzyme biochemistry was put to good use in the research into cardiovascular diseases he did at Gödecke AG. At that time, this subsidiary of the American Parke-Davis Group also developed drugs targeted at blocking disease-relevant enzymes. As a result of company expansion, Gödecke AG also began to focus on oncology. This is where Schächtele started working on the issues that he is still working on today: the investigation of protein kinases and the search for molecules that inhibit these enzymes. Protein kinases are found in all cells, where they transfer phosphate groups to proteins, a process through which they manipulate signalling cascades and genetic programmes. "We now know around 520 such enzymes, many of which play a role in the development of cancer, cancer growth and the formation of metastases," said Schächtele. The time he spent at Gödecke was decisive for the biologist, as this was where he realised what it meant to be searching for an effectively functioning drug. This is also where he discovered that he had a hidden talent.

"Besides doing scientific research, I was also in charge of calculating the costs and the risks of projects," said Schächtele. His sensitivity for economic issues also helped him when Gödecke AG decided to suspend its drug development activities. Together with his research supervisor, Prof. Dr. Dieter Marmé, Schächtele moved to the newly established Tumour Biology Centre in Freiburg in 1994 where he continued his research. The know-how accumulated during his work at Gödecke and the equipment he received from the company was put to good use in the research that was being done in the Tumour Biology Centre. A project focusing on tumour angiogenesis carried out in cooperation with Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis) in Basel secured the required financial resources. In 2001, Schächtele was instrumental in the establishment of ProQinase as a subsidiary of the Tumour Biology Centre.

Approaching the dream

ProQinase GmbH's initial concept was to offer services in the field of protein kinase research. The company still produces protein kinases and commercialises them on the pharmaceutical and biotechnology market. However, it also carries out high-throughput testing of the effect of potential protein kinase inhibitors. Researchers use tumour cells or mice with implanted tumours to test whether these substances have the desired effect on cellular processes such as apoptosis, growth or the migration of tumour cells. The venture capital market crisis around 2000 prevented the company from focusing on proprietary drug development. "However, it was always our policy to reinvest our revenue in the further promotion of own research," said Schächtele. In 2003, the company entered a strategic partnership with the chemistry company 4SC in Martinsried. And today, Schächtele has come a step closer to his dream.

Schächtele and his team’s research led to the discovery of an inhibitor of the protein kinase Flt3, which plays an important role in a certain type of leukaemia. This inhibitor has proved so effective in tests that Schächtele envisages that the inhibitor will enter clinical testing this year. “I imagine that the dream of any scientist working in drug research is to be able to achieve marketing authorisation for at least one substance,” said Schächtele. “I still have ten years before retirement, so I still have this chance.” But Schächtele is aware that the development of the drug can fail. “In this area, you need to be able to cope with a lot of frustration,” said Schächtele laughing. “It’s only when you really enjoy the work process, that you find the strength to go through with it all.” Schächtele now believes that he found the right profession. The mix of management and science suits his talents perfectly. He wouldn’t like to have to give up any one of the two. And his work at the Tumour Biology Centre continuously enables him to work on an issue that is still close to his heart: the close contact he has with tumour patients not only gives him the daily motivation to continue searching for drugs, he is also able to use his didactic talent when giving talks or when guiding visitors around his research department.

Further information:
Dr. Christoph Schächtele
Tumour Biology Centre
Visitor's address:
ProQinase GmbH
Lehener Str. 86
79106 Freiburg
Phone: +49-761-206-1710
Fax: +49-761-206-1781
E-mail: c.schaechtele(at)proqinase.com

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/christoph-schaechtele-searching-for-cancer-inhibitors