Meet the researcher: Dr Henrik Jespersen

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DDW’s Megan Thomas talks to Dr Henrik Jespersen, Head of Melanoma Oncology, at Oslo University Hospital.

Henrik JespersenMT: Where do you work, and can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment? 

HJ: I work as a clinical oncologist at Oslo University Hospital where I am head of melanoma oncology. I have a particular interest in tumour immunology and the melanoma subtype that arises in parts of the eye called uveal melanoma. I lead a translational and multidisciplinary project, PUMA, where we will uncover the elusive tumour immunology of this rare and hard-to treat disease. Uveal melanomas have extremely few mutations, develop in an immune privileged niche and unlike most other cancers, have a rich immune infiltrate in primary uveal melanomas which is associated with a poor prognosis. I believe that unraveling the nature of uveal melanoma’s immune infiltrate holds the key to new therapeutic targets. In the clinic, I am always involved in clinical trials, both industry-initiated and investigator-initiated. Currently, we are planning for a Phase II trial in the neoadjuvant setting for cutaneous melanoma, combining PD-1 inhibition with LTX-315, an oncolytic peptide that has really promising preclinical properties to enhance the effect of immunotherapy. The neoadjuvant concept has become an ideal platform for both drug discovery and translational research. That it mandates close multidisciplinary team work makes it even more rewarding!

MT: What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

HJ: As an early-career physician-scientist, I find it particularly rewarding to see patients benefit from treatment in investigator-initiated trials. As part of my thesis-work, we were able to take an idea born in the lab all the way to a Phase II trial for patients with metastatic uveal melanoma. Seeing the first patient with a durable response in the trial and knowing that it was due to our ideas and hard work was immensely inspiring.

MT: What industry-wide drug discovery breakthrough has most impacted your research?

HJ: Without a doubt, the discovery that inhibition of immune checkpoints can unleash powerful anti-tumoural effects. For decades, metastatic melanoma was a disease with very limited treatment options and little progress. I am just old enough to remember when ineffective chemotherapy was standard of care and most patients didn’t survive a year after diagnosis. With the introduction of immune checkpoint inhibitors, melanoma suddenly became the model disease of a completely new way of treating advanced cancer that could induce long-lasting, deep responses, and I think it is safe to say that we are now curing a proportion of patients with metastatic melanoma. This has set the bar of what is possible with innovative drugs, even in the most aggressive metastatic diseases. I am convinced that the ever-increasing insights in tumour immunology will eventually lead to even more effective immunotherapies, so that even more patients can benefit from the powers of their own immune system.  

MT: What has been the best piece of career advice you have received? 

HJ: Build strong and supportive groups! The success that arises from groups with diversity in talent and personality that complement and challenge each other, is a true superpower. Early on, I had the fortune to work with leaders that always promoted and lifted people in their surroundings, even in the competitive environment that is academia. In the end, what benefits the group will also benefit you as an individual. 

MT: What advice would you offer someone looking to follow in your footsteps?

HJ: Find a mentor or a supervisor with a track record of creating supportive environments. From there on, trust your curiosity to lead you, and dare to say yes! It is difficult foresee which choices will eventually be prosperous, and doors to new exciting paths may be found in the most unexpected places.

DDW Volume 25 – Issue 2, Spring 2024

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