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From lab discovery to a new drug: the Venture Challenge makes it possible

A breakthrough from the PhD research of medical chemist Elmer Maurits may help patients with autoimmune diseases and blood cancer in the future. But bringing a discovery from the lab to the clinic is not so easily done. Thanks to NWO's Venture Challenge, Maurits and his team will receive ten weeks of guidance to start up a company.

For twenty years, professor of Bioorganic Synthesis Hermen Overkleeft and associate professor of Analytical Biochemistry Bogdan Florea have been doing research on the proteasome with their PhD students. This is a large protein complex whose main function is to break down other proteins when they are superfluous or damaged. 

'In our whole body there are proteasomes,' says Overkleeft. 'We have two variants. The first one is found in every cell. The other only in our immune cells, or white blood cells. These are the so-called immunocompetent cells.' 

A crystal structure of a proteasome containing the inhibitors.

Treatment with many side effects

When something goes wrong with those immunocompetent cells, a blood disease such as blood cancer or an autoimmune disease can develop in the body. Patients are then given proteasome inhibitors that counteract that process. The disadvantage of such inhibitors is that they also inhibit the 'good' proteasomes found in all cells. You can see that as side-effects. 

During his PhD research, Maurits discovered a compound that only blocks the proteasomes in immunocompetent cells. Such a new drug that only affects the 'bad' proteasomes therefore theoretically has fewer side effects. This is potentially useful in the clinic.  

'Academically, we have played our part'

Before that happens, a lot of research needs to be done. The new compound must not only effectively disable the right proteasomes, it must also be able to reach them in the body. 'It is similar enough to existing inhibitors to be a medicine. Academically, we have played our part. Now the next step: the possible translation to the clinic. Thanks to the training sessions of the Venture Challenge we will know better how to start this proces in the coming weeks.' 

Brushing up on business development knowledge

The path from an academic discovery to a drug in the clinic takes at least twelve years and costs millions. It is impossible for a university to go through the whole process of clinical trials alone. 'We are very good at the academic part, but there is no standard step yet between taking it from the academy to the clinic,' says Maurits. 'That contains a piece of business development. We want to brush up on that now.' 

The development of the company, with the working name Iprotics, involves a lot of work. The Venture Challenge helps with all the steps in setting up a Biotech startup and provides answers to our questions, says Overkleeft. 'For example, when should we apply for knowledge protection? How do you deal with the owner of that knowledge, the university? How do you make a business plan and get the right experts involved? All this, in addition to all the follow-up research that must demonstrate whether the compound can actually become a medicine, helps to compile a dossier. You can then go to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and say that you are ready for a clinical trial.' 

The first 25,000 euro to start a business

The trainings, workshops and introductions are currently in full swing. In the middle of June, at the end of the ten weeks, there will be a pitch where the five participating startups can present their companies. The winner will receive 25,000 euros. 'It is not about the money,' says Maurits. 'It is a bootcamp and the money is a bonus. We mainly want to learn a lot and make connections. But of course it would be a great start for our company.' 

Text: Inge van Dijck


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