Betagenon’s last lap to show that one drug can treat obesity, diabetes and heart disease
Thomas Edlund is on the verge of summiting his second career. Ten years into his new life as an entrepreneur his company just started phase II trials on a promising candidate drug, to prove the desired effect. The results from the previous phase I safety study came back clean.
- Most people don’t understand what an impact this may have – if we reach the market we can copy the positive effects of physical activity and healthy diets on a number of diseases, he says, almost sounding surprised himself.
This is not a chance discovery. His current business is a continuation of decades of basic cell research that paved the way. As a PhD-student for Staffan Normark, Thomas helped establish the cell and molecular biology research at Umeå University. But a post-doc opportunity brought him to the US and with colleagues in San Francisco, he was part of discovering how the production of insulin is controlled in human pancreatic beta-cells.
Scientific cooperation across the Atlantic
Before returning to Umeå, Thomas Edlund convinced his mentor at University of California, Bill Rutter, to let him take part of his project back home. They called it “friendly competition”. So Thomas came back with both ideas and research material that ultimately led to a series of landmark publications in top journals worldwide.
Surprisingly, the papers were not about beta-cells – but on cell regulation in the central nervous system. His research topic had taken a u-turn after Thomas contacted an American neurobiologist in New York, Tom Jessell, who was simultaneously trying to understand motor neuron development. As it turns out, Thomas’s team had identified a crucial transcription factor that was present in beta-cells – and cells in the central nervous system. Merging their insights, they continued to publish ground-breaking knowledge on the development of the brain that is still being built on by others today.
The courage to drop a life's work and start over
When all the big journals and fancy prizes were in hand and developmental biology was confused with the hype around stem cell research, Thomas Edlund found himself demotivated. Instead of sitting back, he decided to try something entirely new. He returned to diabetes, the research field of his early days, and based on Helena Edlund’s more recent work, they went all-in and established a life science start-up.
- If we were going to do this, we wanted to go for a really important target, Thomas Edlund recalls the discussion among the founders of Betagenon.
That is why the company focused on AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), a central regulator of energy balance and cell metabolism both at local cell and whole organism level. Normally activated by a lack of energy, exercise or reduced food intake, AMPK restores energy levels in the cell by burning sugar and fat. In addition, AMPK aid the delivery of nutrients to organs by boosting heart function and increasing blood circulation. An ideal, but ambitious target to aim at.
Two different approaches to drug Discovery
Going for such a sought-after target was a risky strategy, given that several large pharmacological actors had already failed in the same task. But Thomas attributes the progress of his team to the very different approaches used in the pharma industry and in academic start-ups.
- The industry is good at blocking targets; they systematically screen vast amounts of compounds to find a match. But to activate a target is a whole different thing. This needs innovative and cross-sectional research – basically thinking outside the box, Thomas Edlund says.
His vantage point is not so surprising, given his own research track. However, he stresses the need for collaboration on several levels and genuine commitment to the idea as important success factors.
- You can’t produce or organize innovation, you need to create nurturing environments that allow innovators to commit full time. In San Francisco, people who had failed with one idea got a lot of credibility for having the courage to try – and were given second chances. We need to grow that mentality to fuel innovative thinking, he says with emphasis.
Betagenon’s offices are currently situated in Uminova Science Park, and although the company has not been enrolled in the business coaching services, they have utilized equipment and facilities across the hall at UBI, as in Umeå Biotech Incubator. When asked about his own motivations as an entrepreneur, the local environment comes up once again.
- I guess I just wanted to prove that it can be done. Here. In Umeå. Just as well as in San Fransisco, Boston or New York. Umeå is small so we always had to think and act globally from day one, he says.
A phase two trial underway in Sweden
A few weeks ago, Betagenon launched their Phase II clinical trial performed in Stockholm and Uppsala. In total, 66 patients with type 2 diabetes will be given the drug to access the pharmacological effects on one of the world most wide spread diseases, affecting almost 400 million diabetics. Only one in ten live a complication-free life, so the need for better treatment is enormous.
The study is estimated to take around one year’s time to complete. If successful, Thomas Edlund may have a whole new type of drug on his hands – a game changer in the treatment of disease caused by energy imbalance in humans.
Text: Carolina Hawranek
Photo: Mattias Pettersson, Umeå University
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