Catching tumors in a spider’s web’: that metaphor was used by Joost Schymkowitz and Frederic Rousseau (both VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research) in a 2016 press release following a Science publication on their peptide-based protein knockdown technology. Fast forward to 2018: our 20th spin-off Aelin Therapeutics has just been launched, and Joost and Frederic’s coveted technology platform is now up and running.
Having raised 27 million euro, the most funding ever for a VIB spin-off, the expectations for Aelin Therapeutics are high. But Joost and Frederic have full confidence in their platform for Pept-insTM, designer molecules able to neutralize diseaserelated proteins by collecting them in inactive clumps. These clumps, called amyloids, were the subjects of their research projects as early as 2004.
When did you first realize that your research project could hold great promise?
Frederic: “That happened quite gradually. But around 2006, we began to understand that our concept of mimicking amyloid formation to inactivate proteins could apply to virtually any protein – and, by consequence, potentially impact a wide array of diseases. Rudy Dekeyser (VIB’s cofounder and codirector until 2012 – Ed.) was one of our very first ardent enthusiasts, lending a lot of support during those early years. But although the enormous potential of our idea was clear, we all knew that transforming this idea into a technology platform would be a huge endeavor.”
Could you briefly describe the path from idea to start-up?
Joost: “We first tested our proof of concept in a common bacterial model system, after which we submitted our data to the VIB Innovation & Business Team. They were immediately intrigued and very enthusiastic, and a first patent application was readily drafted by Jan Demolder. The support of the Innovation & Business team was also instrumental in helping us secure early funding. That led to a first series of publications showing the potential of our approach in a wide range of applications. For instance, with Jenny Russinova of the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology, we demonstrated protein functional knockdown in transgenic plants expressing Pept-ins. And with Johan Van Eldere at the UZ Leuven we managed to kill multi-resistant clinical bacterial strains by clumping together their proteins.”
Frederic: “In a later stage, when the technology platform was more advanced, protecting the many possible fields of application was a real feat. Not so much for us, but for our IP team. Hannes Iserentant and Jan Demolder have done an incredible job in that respect. When it came to valorization and creating a business model for a spin-off, we enjoyed the close collaboration with Els Beirnaert and Griet Vanpoucke from VIB’s Innovation & Business team. During many years, we learned a lot from each other. Pitching the story to investors together was always very productive but also enlightening. For example, we discovered that many venture capital funders are not simply interested in investing, but also have a clear vision on making a societal difference.”
Can you take stock of some highs and lows during that journey?
Joost: “Starting with the latter: the biggest challenge in the early days was simply persuading ourselves that our approach really worked, especially because the quality of the peptides we ordered from companies was very variable. And yes, we encountered quite a few dead ends. We often thought back to something Rudy said: ‘In biotech, the bumps are the road’. The highs more than offset the lows. Seeing our paper published in Science in 2016 was a massive boost as well.”
Frederic: “A breakthrough was the moment we bought a peptide synthesizer and started making our own peptides in-house. And, of course, we are very excited that the spin-off has been launched! Being part of a record investment in a very innovative idea and seeing the team gradually being built is a great feeling.”
Who came up with Aelin, by the way? And what does it mean?
Joost: “That’s Fre’s idea! Aelin is actually a mix of different etymologies: the Greek root means ‘light’ and the Latin root means ‘different’. It illustrates the novel and unique nature of Pept-ins and our hope to bring therapeutic molecules to the market that meet urgent medical needs.”
A nice ambition indeed. Could you elaborate a bit?
Frederic: “There’s scientific consensus that we’re approaching a post-antibiotics era. That’s where our potential therapeutics come in, because they offer a very different approach to fight antibioticresistant diseases. In the years to come, we plan to work hard to make that happen. After all, making game-changing discoveries is exciting, but bringing them to the real world is even more satisfying!”
Joost: “While we continue to work as advisors for Aelin, we’ll keep on exploring other applications for our Pept-ins in our labs – in close collaboration with Aelin, of course.”
Gallardo et al., Science 2016