Adrian Schomburg, 37, likes pictures. He and Andreas Ladurner, 49, founded Eisbach Bio in 2019. When Schomburg presents his start-up, he often shows an oil painting by Antoine Borel from 1787. It hangs in the National Gallery in Parma. It shows how the sea nymph Thetis dips her son Achilles into the underworld river Styx to make him invulnerable. She holds her child on the heel. This is not wetted by the water and is later his sore point. There, according to Greek mythology, he meets the arrow of Paris.
It is a nice picture of what Schomburg and Ladurner are doing: They are looking for the sore spot in tumor cells. The two scientists also found him. “Some cancer cells lose a tumor suppressor, the gene sequence that prevents the formation of a tumor,” explains Schomburg: “We are looking for a protein in the cancer cells that these tumors cannot do without. We switch this protein off.” Finding the weak point and the right substance is a gigantic arithmetic task. Eisbach Bio analyzes huge amounts of data from the human genome.
Schomburg is a molecular biologist, he has worked for Pfizer and founded it a few times. Ladurner is a biochemist, he teaches at the Biomedical Center of the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. Your company is located in the Innovation and Start-Up Center for Biotechnology (IZB) in Martinsried. When the first reports of the new corona virus appeared in southern Munich at the end of January, she was curious. “I sat down at the computer one evening and looked at the Sars-CoV-2 gene sequence,” says Schomburg. At first, he couldn’t believe what he saw. The virus has a protein that is confusingly similar to the indispensable target protein in the tumor cells. “We speculated that a few of our anti-tumor molecules could also act against Sars-CoV-2,” said Ladurner. At least in the laboratory, this seems to work well, as initial tests show. “Our molecules attack a protein essential for the virus and paralyze it.” The start-up has already submitted patents for the process and molecular structures.
If things go well, the molecules could become a drug and clinical trials could take place next year, says Schomburg. So far, he has assumed a treatment period of one to two weeks and a price of “less than 100 euros”. Once the right molecule has been found, production is not a problem, says Schomburg: “Basically, our product is a chemical.” The active ingredient and the substances required for a tablet, such as sugar and starch, can be produced in large quantities at relatively low cost. This is usually done by contractors.
It is important to pursue parallel strategies in the fight against the new corona virus. “At the moment everything is focused on containing the infection through tests and protective measures such as masks and the development of vaccines,” says Schomburg. But what if the vaccines do not trigger permanent immunity or are not available to everyone? Ladurner and Schomburg have found the answer for themselves that new antiviral agents such as the preparation they are working on are needed.
No vaccine can be found against many viruses, but an active ingredient can
“There is still no vaccine against hepatitis C and cytomegaloviruses, a group of herpes viruses, but there are active substances that cure the viral infections. After more than 30 years of research, we have still not found a vaccine against HIV, but chemical substances that prevent it Braking and containing the outbreak of the disease, “says Ladurner.
The two founders would not be good entrepreneurs if they did not deal extensively with the competition. Some drugs that have been developed for other indications are being tested against Covid-19, the disease that triggers the virus. In technical jargon this is called repurposing. In the beginning, the active substances chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine were considered possible candidates. They were developed to treat malaria. The hope has been shattered after negative studies.
Another candidate is Remdesivir, which was developed by Gilead for the treatment of infections with Ebola and nipah viruses. It is the first medicine to receive conditional approval for the treatment of Covid-19 in the EU. “I would take Remdesivir, but not only does it destroy the production of Sars-CoV-2’s genetic information, it may also affect our genes,” says Schomburg. He and Ladurner don’t want to condemn the drug. “But our approach is more targeted because it is explicitly directed against the corona virus and uses the protein to destroy an engine that is virtually unchanged in all known corona viruses,” says Ladurner.
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Despite their initial success in the laboratory, it is not clear whether their approach will lead to success. There are risks, the founders have run through the scenarios: the drug from Eisbach Bio could fail in the clinical phase. Or there is a vaccine that is effective in the long term and there may be no need for a therapeutic agent. The drug could still be an alternative for developing countries, argues Schomburg, because it is likely to be cheaper than the vaccine and easier to manufacture and transport. It could also be that a global immunization campaign will make the new coronavirus disappear before there is therapy.
Because of the risks, Eisbach Bio had sought its own sources of money to fund its Covid 19 research. A billionaire donated a seven-figure amount. Schomburg does not mention the name. He only reveals so much that it is not one of the usual suspects – not the Strüngmann brothers who invested in Biontech or Dietmar Hopp, major shareholder of Curevac. Not even the foundation of Bill and Melinda Gates. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research also supports the project. “We currently have enough money,” says Schomburg.
That will change when the clinical tests and eventually the production start. The founders want more support for the research and development of active ingredients, not just financial ones. He wrote to several politicians and institutions, but the reactions were rather moderate. They also wish for more enthusiasm that would fuel the establishment of radical “new therapeutic approaches”. Approaches like hers.