26 November 2015

Startup company founded by pharmaceutical researchers at Utrecht University wins Venture Challenge

Dr. Nathaniel Martin, Timo Koopmans & Laurens Kleijn

 

Dr. Nathaniel Martin and two doctoral candidates Timo Koopmans and Laurens Kleijn in his group at Utrecht University have won the Top Sector Life Sciences Venture Challenge with their startup company Synamp Pharmaceuticals. This startup company is the direct result of the fundamental research into new antibiotics conducted by Martin and his group. The three winners will receive a cheque for € 25,000 to be used to further test the antibiotics being developed by their company.

Nathaniel Martin, Timo Koopmans, and Laurens Kleijn founded Synamp Pharmaceuticals in November 2014 after discovering and patenting a new class of antibiotics based on the naturally occurring peptide nisin. Nisin is produced by certain stains of harmless lactic acid bacteria and is very effective at killing a large group of so-called Gram-positive bacteria, including drug-resistant pathogens. “The problem is that nisin is not stable in our body, but we have been able to adapt the peptide in such a way that we now have a variety of forms that remain stable in the bloodstream for a longer time period. These new variants retain nisin’s antibacterial activity, but their customised characteristics may make them more suitable for use as clinical antibiotics”, according to Martin.

VRE and MRSA

Next year, the team will study whether the compounds that have been developed so far are also stable and active in animals. Doctoral Candidate Laurens Kleijn will also study other potentially interesting nisin derivatives. These new nisin-based antibiotics could be used to fight bacteria that have become resistant to other antibiotics, such as vancomycin-resistant enterococcus (VRE) and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which can be fatal in patients with weakened immune systems.

VIDI

The research into the new antibiotics began with Martin’s application for a VIDI grant, which allowed him to appoint two doctoral candidates including Timo Koopmans. They initially tried to synthesise part of the nisin peptide, but were unsuccessful. However, Koopmans did find a good method for adapting the natural product; a success that earned him a publication in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS), as well as a patent.

First employee

Koopmans will defend his dissertation on 27 January 2016, and was recently hired as the first employee of Synamp. The funding for the startup was provided by the three founders themselves and private investors in their circle of acquaintance. The cheque from Venture Challenge is therefore a welcome addition.

Plenty of ideas

Next year will be critical, because major investors are only expected to show interest after the antibiotic is proven to work in animals. “That would be wonderful, but of course we know that the fail rate in the development of pharmaceuticals in clinical development is 90 percent”, explains Doctoral Candidate Laurens Kleijn. “So we will just have to develop at least 10 products”, Koopmans replies. “Our group has plenty of ideas!”

Venture Challenge

The Venture Challenge LifeSciences@Work is organised every six months. Six candidates are selected from the startups that apply, and in two three-day workshops they draw up a venture plan under expert supervision. In the final round, they must pitch their startup to a jury of biotech entrepreneurs. For more information, see the LifeSciences@Work website.

More information

  • Dr. Nathaniel Martin earned his PhD in his home country of Canada. After a three-year postdoc at UC Berkeley (United States), he came to Utrecht, where he received an NWO  VIDI grant in 2010 for his proposal ‘Binding to Bacterial Building Blocks’. Last year, students of Molecular Life Sciences chose Martin as Lecturer of the Year.
  • Timo Koopmans earned his Bachelor’s in Chemistry and his Master’s in Drug Innovation at Utrecht University. He will defend his dissertation ‘Towards New Peptide-Based Therapeutics and Tools for Chemical Biology’ on 27 January 2016. See also his publication in JACS.
  • Laurens Kleijn began his doctoral research in 2013 with a Bijvoet-NWO PhD grant. He also studied at Utrecht University, and after his Bachelor’s in Chemistry he went on to graduate cum laude from the Master’s programme Drug Innovation.
  • Synamp Pharmaceuticals