An innovative fight against the bacterium Clostridium difficile
Mattias Ivarsson is committed to fighting a nasty bacterium at the root of many hospital-acquired infections. He just completed his PhD on the topic and presented his ideas, as well as his plan to develop his own biotech company, as a finalist in the Falling Walls Lab in Berlin - part of the 25th anniversary events surrounding the fall of the Berlin wall. ETH News met up with the cosmopolitan engineer before his trip to Berlin.
What a year it’s been!" he said, looking relaxed and with the hint of a tan, Mattias Ivarsson sat across from me at the Café Des Amis in Zurich and told me about the past few months. The 27-year-old biomedical engineer had just returned from his honeymoon in Mauritius. Shortly before his honeymoon, he successfully defended his dissertation at the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences at ETH Zurich and received a Pioneer Fellowship from ETH Zurich to develop his research into a product for the market. He was also one of the Venture Leaders 2014, chosen by venturelab, the national training programme for innovative high-tech start-ups. As if the year hadn’t been eventful enough, the amateur saxophonist’s funk and soul band, "Lying Eight" released its first album this past summer.
But back to the reason for our conversation, Mattias Ivarsson participated in the Falling Walls Lab competition in Zurich at the end of September and won first place against 12 other young scientists. Winning the Zurich competition entitled Ivarsson to take part as a finalist in Berlin where he competed against 99 other young scientists from 34 countries for the title, "Falling Walls Young Innovator of the Year 2014." While he wasn't selected among the top three finalists for the overall competition, ETH Zurich is proud to have an innovator like Ivarsson within its own walls. He also enjoyed the experience of celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in the German capital.
Contacts and business ideas
Ivarsson anticipates putting the connections he made at the Berlin conference to good use: instead of dedicating himself to academia, he would like to continue to develop drugs for clinical use. So it is logical that his doctoral thesis deals with what one might be tempted to call ‘popular’ medicine: the bacterium Clostridium difficile. “It’s one of the most common causes of hospital-acquired infections around the world,” said Ivarsson. “It causes diarrhoea and can lead to intestinal bleeding, sometimes even death in 5% to 10% of infected people.” What makes Clostridium difficile so dangerous is that it releases a toxin that penetrates the cells of the intestinal wall and damages or destroys them outright.
Ivarsson’s solution, to outsmart the intestinal bacteria, lies in the development of a molecule that fights the bacterial toxin. The toxin, a large protein, consists of two components: one part carries the toxin into cells of the intestinal wall, while the other part damages the cell from within. Ivarsson’s molecule works by separating the two parts before the toxin enters intestinal cells, thus rendering it harmless. A patent has already been registered and further tests in mice are promising.
Ivarsson intends to start his own biotech company with the help of an ETH Pioneer Fellowship grant. If everything goes as planned, the first clinical studies should take place in about two years. He’s now looking for a major partner from the pharmaceutical industry and if a company were to purchase the results of his research, he would consider that to be perfect – even if such a solution were to result in unemployment, “I’ll just do something else,” he said in a laid-back manner. This is a person who is not afraid of new things.
Multilingual and cosmopolitan
We conducted the conversation in German, at Ivarsson's request. The young scientist has been speaking German regularly since moving from EPFL to ETH Zurich, which has been supporting him with an Excellence Scholarship. Ivarsson grew up in Geneva as the son of a Swedish diplomat to the UN and a Polish IT engineer. The main language that his family speaks at home is French, but his parents also taught him Swedish and Polish. He learned English during the school year at the International School of Geneva. While on an exchange programme to Cornell University in the US, he met his wife, who comes from Croatia. It is no surprise that he is now also learning Croatian.
“I love to discover different things and want to learn as much as possible,” he said when describing his motivation. Alongside his studies, Ivarsson dabbled in management consulting so he could acquire first-hand knowledge of management through internships. While working at the World Health Organization (WHO) as an intern, he participated in an international study on technical equipment in hospitals. At ETH Zurich, he was president of the BEEZ Students Union (Biomedical Engineering ETH Zurich) during his Master’s degree and president of the Pharmaceutical Scientists’ Association (PSA) while a doctoral student.
During his free time, he’s a passionate football player, dances the tango with his wife, plays golf from time to time, skis and plays saxophone. Incidentally, he discovered his passion for the saxophone at the age of nine when he saw the then US President Bill Clinton playing the instrument on television. When asked about his future plans he said, “I hope I am able to constantly develop new products from applied research.” This suggests that Mattias Ivarsson has many more innovative years to come.