Greek Woman is the Mastermind Behind Breakthrough Cancer Treatment



Dr. Maria Themeli is a researcher who has made a crucial contribution to the treatment of blood cancer with the production of CAR-T cells which fight the dreaded disease.

She is now determined to make her patent freely accessible to everyone, because pharmaceutical companies interested in the production of CAR-T cells have quoted very high production costs for the cells.

Dr. Themeli is assistant professor of medicine ​at the “VUmc Cancer Center” in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Along with her team of researchers, she has managed to produce CAR-T cells at “academic level,” on a smaller scale than would be necessary for full-scale commercial production.

The Greek scientist, who recently spoke to the Athens News Agency, stated that she believes cancer therapy should not be the privilege of the few. She strongly believes that commercial-level production of CAR-T cells can be achieved at lower costs than what the pharmaceutical companies are claiming.

“There are difficulties, because the pharmaceutical companies interested in the production of CAR-T cells (Novartis and Kite Pharma) have given very high production cost, approximately € 350,000, when the production at academic level does not exceed 50,000 euros,” she said.

“This displeases me, as it makes treatment outside the clinical study very difficult, as the insurance funds in Europe are not willing to cover such a treatment cost,” she added.

The Greek researcher believes that immunotherapy by itself, or in combination with other treatments, can substantially improve the survival rates of those suffering from specific kinds of cancer.

“Studies at clinical and pre-clinical level on the use of CAR-T are (being) held at the moment; but for cases of solid cancer, things are more difficult and the results not so spectacular,” the researcher admits.

“Our group, along with scientists from all over the world, is trying to find solutions to these problems, and I believe that very soon we will have improved results for the treatment with CAR-T and on other types of cancer,” Dr. Themeli said.

She continued, “Unfortunately, when we believed we had finished with this puzzle, suddenly new parts appear, and this happens because cancer is an extremely variable disease.”

Yet the reseacher’s team never ceases in their efforts to reach their goal. “In the laboratory, I set small and big, short term and long term targets and I celebrate them all,” she adds.

“It is important to celebrate them, because in research there is 90 percent failure and disappointment, and only 10 percent moments of happiness. The answer to a question is the driving force,” Dr. Themeli emphasized.

Maria Themeli was born and raised in Patras. She entered the school of medicine at the University of Patras in 2000 and graduated first in her class in 2006. She earned her PhD at the same university. In 2010, she continued her post-doctoral research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

It was there that she received training in the design, development, manufacture and clinical applications of immunotherapy with CAR-T cells. Her team’s work led to high-impact discoveries in the field of immunotherapy with CAR-T cells.

Dr. Themeli has received several distinguished awards, such as the Druckenmiller Scholarship from the New York Stem Cell Foundation and the TRT (Translational Research in Hematology) from the American and European Hematology Association.

In 2015, she received the Marie Curie Scholarship from the European Union and returned to Europe to perform research in the department of hematology at the VUmc Cancer Center in Amsterdam.

Themeli received the distinction of being named the “Woman of the Year 2017” in the Netherlands, despite only living and working there for two and a half years.

Dr. Themeli was in Athens last week to receive the Argo Innovation Prize award for the production of CAR-T cells which fight cancer. The Argo Award is given to Greeks who live and excel in their fields of expertise abroad.