In 2015, VIB made a strategic investment in a team of industry-trained scientists and research infrastructure to build the ‘VIB Discovery Sciences’ unit. This team is embedded in VIB’s Innovation & Business team and focuses on making specific expertise available to promising projects in VIB labs that are amenable to translation. In other words, the discovery unit initiates and guides the transformation of scientific insights into projects that could deliver novel therapeutics or agrochemicals. Throughout the entire process, VIB scientists remain involved to provide expertise on the basic biology of the project. The head of VIB Discovery Sciences, Jérôme Van Biervliet, elaborates on the goals and successes of the initiative so far.
Let’s go back to 2015. Why was there a specific need for VIB Discovery Sciences?
“Over the years, VIB has proven to be very strong in building proof-of-concept in platforms toward new venture creation, with notable examples as Ablynx and Confo Therapeutics. In contrast, the traditional approach for single assets, for example, therapeutics or agrochemicals, was historically mostly driven by industrial partnerships, rather than establishing an asset-centric spinoff. This is because it’s hard to find investors and industrial partners willing to take the mental leaps from scientific concepts to development candidates. They tend to be quite risk-averse and want to see early-stage products and in vivo ‘proofs-of concept’. To bridge exactly that gap, from promising targets to the commercial development of products, we launched the VIB Discovery Sciences initiative. The team knows exactly what is needed to translate novel targets into investment-worthy assets. These assets can be intellectual property, industry-like data packages, biological proof-of-concept data, and early-stage candidate molecules with a realistic potential for clinical application.”
What type of projects does VIB Discovery Sciences typically take on? What are the criteria?
“It all starts with VIB science. The molecular research of our research groups provides VIB’s Innovation & Business team with a rich source of medical, plant, industrial biotech, and biomarker concepts. We pro-actively mine this basic biology work running in the institute for promising drug discovery targets. Of course, VIB scientists can also propose projects themselves. Whether a certain research project is suitable for the discovery unit is evaluated by the entire Innovation & Business team, in discussion with the PI.
All aspects of commercial opportunities are being considered, including the novelty of the project and the unmet societal need. Elementally, it should be realistic to develop the target into medicine or agricultural product. Given the attrition rate in such early-stage projects, we only incubate a few projects with high potential at any given time. Plus, we often experience that lessons learned from one project benefit the other projects running in the team.”
What is the difference between academic research and how does a project usually proceed?
“The main difference of a VIB Discovery Sciences project with academic research is the product-centric approach. We are not focused on publishing papers, but our goal is to develop a target into a product that benefits society. Basically, we start where academic research stops. We initiate the translational research needed to deliver validated candidates for small molecule or biologic therapeutics, and agro-products. Our team designs and plans early drug discovery projects, guides and executes assay development campaigns, and executes in vitro pharmacology experiments. We also take charge of the project management, collaborate with partners with complementary capabilities (e.g. medicinal chemistry, antibody screening, etc.), and design proof-of-concept studies around novel candidate therapeutics. During the whole process, the team relies on the scientific advice and insights of the PI who initiated the project. It is the combination of top-level academic science that makes our discovery unit work. After all, the PI laboratory remains the key source of biological insights, interpretation of experimental results, research tools, scientific steering, and creativity.”
How would you evaluate the initiative so far? Which successes were achieved?
“To me, a successful project is one where we can make significant scientific progress and, at the same time, succeed in attracting a business partner to turn it into reality. Ever since its inception nearly four years ago, VIB Discovery Sciences is building a basis for value creation projects leading to asset-centric spin-off companies. This is elegantly exemplified by Oncurious, a spinoff founded by VIB and Oxurion in 2015 which focuses on the development of innovative oncology treatments. The portfolio of the new venture is based on the pre-clinical research conducted by the teams of Peter Carmeliet, Massimiliano Mazzone, and Gabriele Bergers from the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology and Jo Van Ginderachter (VIB Center for Inflammation Research, VUB). By partnering early-stage innovative projects of VIB scientists we were hence able to develop the project into a new venture.”
“Another highlight is the drug discovery project for novel targets in Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), based on the research of Ludo Van Den Bosch, Joris de Wit, and Bart De Strooper (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research). CMT is characterized by the progressive denervation of muscles and affects touch sensation, especially in the extremities. There currently are no specific therapeutics available for this neurological disorder. Over the last years, the VIB research groups uncovered several biological pathways in peripheral neuropathies that represent promising therapeutic targets for CMT. VIB Discovery Sciences is now taking the project further towards the preclinical development of new therapeutics based on these novel targets. Importantly, we were able to attract external financing which allows us to really accelerate the project.” (more on page 9)
What type of scientists works in the team?
“In a couple of years, the VIB Discovery Sciences team really has matured, with a team of 10 scientists and 7 technicians lead by senior scientists with strong industrial backgrounds: Bruno Dombrecht and Laurent Galibert. They each supervise a sub-team of project leaders and technicians. Many project leaders are former postdocs fresh out of VIB labs, who have a strong interest in the industry. Moreover, several master students are already involved in the Leuven unit at the moment. As such, VIB Discovery Sciences doubles as a training ground for these young scientists in the transition to industry-type activities. For example, they learn what makes a good drug target and face questions like: which aspects are relevant to evaluate a novel target, what are the key uncertainties, and which experiments are needed to address these uncertainties? To extend further on this training aspect, the Innovation & Business unit has also launched an internship program. The idea is that the trainees rotate in the different units of the team, including in the Discovery Sciences team.
“You have the opportunity to work closely with very knowledgeable people having experience in the biotech industry, who introduce you to the world of antibodies, nanobodies, recombinant proteins, and small molecules. They guide and stimulate you towards strategic thinking, target population, and pharmacokinetics. You can take project responsibility while designing timelines, determining milestones and collaborating with CROs and partners.” - Isabelle Cambré
DID YOU KNOW….
…that the VIB Discovery Sciences team interacts with outside partners in its network, typically Contract Research Organizations (CRO’s), on a project-by-project basis to find the expertise that is not available within VIB?
…that a VIB Discovery Sciences unit is currently being set up in the Tech Lane Ghent Science Park? The team there will focus on early discovery activities for therapeutic biologics. On April 1st two new colleagues joined the team in Ghent: Jimmy Borloo and Nadja van Boxel.