Gong xi fa cai!
On this special occasion, Curia’s own Walter Tian, Vice President of Commercial Operations, shares with us his incredible journey through the backroads of the Middle Kingdom with the one and only Georges Köhler, Nobel Prize winner and co-discoverer of the hybridoma.
Walter, thank you for sharing with us this wonderful experience. When did all this happen?
“The year was 1985, one year after Dr. Köhler won his Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for his ground-breaking Nature publication on hybridoma technology”.
What exactly did this trip entail? How were you chosen for this amazing opportunity?
“In early 1980’s China had just come out of the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China underwent significant reform and opened up to the outside world. Sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Köhler was to visit four Chinese cities and give presentations on the impact of hybridoma technology and the latest development in the field of immunology.
His first stop in China was Beijing Medical University. I was in my last year of a master’s program in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology. My graduate program advisor was chairman of the department and he nominated me to travel with Georges and his family for the rest of the trip, first because I spoke decent English but also because I was young.
We visited many places in Beijing including the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and many others. I was very impressed by how low key and down-to-earth Georges was. One never would have guessed he was a world-famous scientist, a Nobel Laureate. I remember arranging for dinner after the Great Wall visit. Upon my request, the restaurant manager set up a large table in the corner and used a curtain to isolate the corner from the rest of the restaurant. Dr. Köhler was not happy with my idea at all. He immediately asked that the curtains be removed. He did not want to be different from the rest of the other restaurant visitors”.
What were some of the main stops and attractions? Favorite moment? Any stops you wish could have made or shown him instead?
“After Beijing, the next stop was Xi’An, the ancient capital city where the famous Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses were discovered. Xi’An is my hometown, and Dr. Köhler gave a talk at Xi’An Medical College, my alma mater. Everywhere we went, we were followed by curious local people who had never seen foreigners before.
From Xi’An, we were supposed to fly to Guilin, the most beautiful city in China. Dr. Köhler had visited Guilin on his previous trip to China and wanted to bring his family there to show them the breathtaking scenery. He was deeply disappointed to learn that there were no more plane tickets. Instead, we were instructed to fly to Guangzhou (Canton)”.
Any funny moments that took place on the trip? Maybe it turned out Dr. Köhler was a big fan of Peking duck but despised tofu?
“After we arrived into Guangzhou, and remembering how disappointed he was about not being able to see Guilin again, I asked for help from local medical school staff for places they recommended visiting. They recommend a local spot, Seven Star Rock Park, with images similar to what one would see in Guilin. Dr. Köhler was very pleased with this arrangement.
In one of the dinners in Guangzhou, we ordered a chicken dish. His whole family was excited to find big chunks of potato in the dish. After all, this was their first time eating potatoes since they landed in China. You should know back then there was no McDonald’s in China, no KFC, no Pizza Hut, and definitely no Starbucks”.
Following this trip, were you more motivated than ever to continue pursuing a career in the sciences? Also given your long and successful career in the biotech industry, what are you most excited about that is coming out of research these days?
“From Guangzhou, we said good-bye and they went on to visit Hong Kong. Unfortunately, we lost communication after that. In 1995, I was shocked to hear the sad news that he had passed away from a heart attack. He was only 48 years old, too young and with too much to contribute to the society.
Right after their seminal Nature publication in 1975, monoclonal antibodies were celebrated as the “magic bullets” for their potential in human therapies. In 1986, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first monoclonal antibody for human therapy. However, it would take almost another 20 years before monoclonal antibodies became standard choices for cancer, autoimmune diseases, and infectious diseases, including COVID-19 treatments today.
The first FDA approved antibody OKT3 was made by Dr. Patrick Kung, a scientist at Ortho Pharmaceutical (later Johnson & Johnson). The OKT antibody series were critical in the understanding of T cell immunology. He later started one of the first biotech companies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called T Cell Sciences. I had the honor of joining the company in 1986 as a visiting scientist from China. As a member of the hybridoma group, I made several anti-T cell receptor antibodies. We had high hopes of using antibodies against a specific subset of T cell receptors for treating autoimmune diseases. The theory never panned out. However, our research did lead to better understanding of T cell activation. Today I’m especially excited to see recent clinical success in CAR-T therapies and individualized cancer vaccines”.
As we begin this Lunar New Year, I wanted to honor Dr. Köhler, whose seminal work remains the basis for the entire field of monoclonal antibody development, and Walter Tian, a wonderful mentor and colleague here at Curia!