Almost everyone is affected by cancer at some stage in their life — as a patient, or by the loss of a loved one. And while there are over 14 million new diagnoses every year, it’s a highly individual disease. We’re still far away from curing cancer altogether, but a new approach could save millions of lives: personalized cancer vaccines.

Nowadays cancer is commonly treated with radiotherapy and chemotherapy, which doctors often administer in combination. Using high-powered radiation and a powerful cocktail of drugs, this kills cancer cells, but it can also destroy healthy cells and trigger severe side effects — it’s a blunt approach to treating a disease that’s as individual as the person, their genes, and their lifestyle.

BioNTech, a bioscience company based in Mainz, Germany, is battling cancer by boosting the body’s own immune system and personalizing the treatment administered to each patient depending on their particular genetic makeup. They are paving the way for a future in which cancer treatment focuses only on the cancer cells needing targeted as opposed to drugs which damage whole swathes of the human body. This is where Siemens comes in. As the company grows and begins taking their revolutionary treatments through the long journey of clinical trials, the volume of data they will need to process could slow the whole development down. André Martins, Senior Sales Manager at Siemens, together with Project Leader Jan van Herpe and a team of experts working across Europe, helps power the young company’s vision of disrupting the cancer treatment landscape, through lightening their cumbersome data load.

With mainstream media championing the rise of the startup disruptors, it’s easy to believe that solutions to humanity’s greatest problems are now solely in the hands of young companies. And while new ideas and approaches do tend to come from those with a fresher outlook, huge change happens when those with invention collaborate alongside those with far-reaching scalability.

For BioNTech — a company with now over 500 scientists, doctors and technicians working on a promising new technology — the next big hurdle is getting that technology past the point of invention and into testing, scaling and deployment.

But to achieve this, a lot of time-consuming documentation is necessary. Clinical studies, trials and research insights need to be recorded, organized and stored. Until recently, this was done by hand: rows of jam-packed folders and mountains of paper accumulated over the years it took to develop a new drug.

Siemens supports BioNTech with a pioneering solution: a manufacturing execution system (MES) called Simatic IT eBR, specifically developed for the bioscience industry. This digital system automatically documents the vaccine production from start to finish, meaning, BioNTech’s scientists will spend less time on documentation and concentrate on what’s truly important: developing their technology. They don’t have to write down every single value by hand anymore, because smart sensors record results automatically. It alerts them if they made a mistake and stores the entire documentation in a central database.

Martins has over 15 years of experience working with MES systems. And he knows how innovation and compliance with international government regulations have to be carefully balanced in the pharmaceutical sector; companies like BioNTech want to make their ideas a reality as fast as possible without losing approvals and licenses. André Martins makes sure that this journey runs smoothly: “You have to have a good sense for what you can do without having to restart the whole documentation process.”

And with years of experience working the pharmaceutical industry, also comes the ability to coordinate a large-scale effort across borders. To offer BioNTech the perfect setup, Siemens calls on the expertise of professionals from all over Europe like Project Leader Jan van Herpe, who’s Belgian and works with experts in France, the UK and Germany. He enjoys collaborating with such a diverse team: “It’s challenging” he says, “but it’s great fun to work with different countries and provide all this expertise to our customers.” What fascinates him the most about the project? “They are working on groundbreaking innovation for the personalized treatment of cancer which I hope can bring a next step in the fight against the disease. That’s a big motivation.”

André Martins sees it the same way: “I’m proud to work in this field and to develop something new, it’s great to say, yes, I worked on something that truly helps people.”

So what does this technology mean for the future? Martins believes it will shape the medicine of tomorrow: “With digitalization, personalized medicine will become better and more affordable. And this doesn’t only apply to fighting cancer — it will help to cure all kinds of diseases, viruses and other illnesses.”

With Siemens working closely with the younger movers and shakers in the healthcare field — ensuring their ingenious inventions and fresh approaches are supported and powered through the long road to deployment — the future of medicine really is in the hands of the collaborators.

Words: Phillip Mueller and Gemma Milne
 Animation: David Whyte
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