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New Frontier Grant fuels young DANDRITE-researcher's biotech vision

The Lundbeck Foundation fuels young neuroscientist's biotech vision with a DKK 5 million grant from its new Frontier Grant programme. Lasse Reimer of DANDRITE at Aarhus University will spend the next 18 months bringing the promising project to maturity and taking it out of the lab in search of investors.

Parkinson’s disease is characterised by an accumulation of the protein alpha-synuclein in certain parts of the brain. However, precisely how this leads to a loss of nerve-cell function and the development of symptoms such as tremors and stiffness is still not fully understood.

A Danish research group, led by Professor Poul Henning Jensen of the Danish Research Institute of Translational Neuroscience (DANDRITE) at Aarhus University, has discovered a possible explanation. The group’s research has shown that the accumulation of the protein leads to an imbalance in the levels of calcium in the nerve cells, which triggers a chain reaction leading to the destruction of the cell.

From fungi to medication

The researchers are also exploring ways of blocking or at least delaying this disease mechanism. Although work is still at an early stage, they have identified certain new and promising substances that could be used to develop a whole new type of medication capable of slowing down the otherwise inevitable progress of the disease.

‘The project started with the surprising discovery that the abnormal Parkinson’s protein alpha-synuclein activated a calcium pump in the nerve cells, which damages them. A five-year research grant from the Lundbeck Foundation in 2016 allowed us to study the mechanism in more detail. A mouse model showed that a specific mycotoxin - a poisonous substance produced by some fungal toxin – could inhibit the mechanism and halt the progress of the disease. Now, with the help of the Frontier Grant, our goal is to develop substances that not only affect the mechanism but can also be administered as medications,’ says Professor Jensen.

Bringing the biotech vision to life

Lasse Reimer PhD from the DANDRITE research group has received a grant from the Lundbeck Foundation's new Frontier Grants programme. The DKK 5 million will cover the costs of maturing the project over an 18-month period. The hope is for the project eventually to attract sufficient capital to continue as an independent biotech company, or possibly be acquired by a pharmaceutical company.  As well as money, the grant also includes an individually tailored personal development programme, complete with mentors and courses. The idea is to give recipients the tools needed to become biotech entrepreneurs.

‘As a young researcher, it is a tremendous privilege to be the first recipient of the Lundbeck Foundation Frontier Grant. On a personal level, it gives me a unique opportunity to take a promising research project, one I’ve been part of for years, out of the lab and one step closer to patients. The Frontier Grant also comes with a personal development plan, which – combined with the talented people around me – will give me the skills I need to excel as a biotech entrepreneur,’ says Reimer.

Several things need to fall into place before major investors take the plunge and fund a development programme that – unless it is a failure – might ultimately lead to a completely new treatment option for people with Parkinson’s and other serious brain disorders.

‘We hope the new Frontier Grants programme will help pave the way for investors and bridge the gap from academia to the commercial world,’ explains Jan Egebjerg, Research Director at the Lundbeck Foundation.

‘We often see exciting research projects that have the potential to evolve into start-up companies. The point of the Frontier Grants programme is to help those projects mature to the point that investors find them attractive.  But we also want to train the innovators of tomorrow in the art of turning research into entrepreneurship and pursuing opportunities for successful spin-outs,’ says Egebjerg.

The research project is being developed in close collaboration with William Dalby Brown, a medicinal chemistry R&D consultant, and Claus Elsborg Olesen, a Novo Nordisk Distinguished Innovator and senior researcher at Aarhus University.