Dopamine neuron research leads to revolutionary new treatment for Parkinson’s

After years of research, Macrobian Biotech is developing new medicines under the leadership of UvA professor Marten Smidt. Smidt thinks that these drugs will finally be able to really combat Parkinson’s and similar neurological disorders.

Could you briefly tell us about the work you do at the UvA and at Macrobian Biotech?

I was research director of the Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences for six years. In 2017 I also started the company Macrobian Biotech. We had made a number of inventions during our fundamental work. I’ve been working on dopamine neurons for twenty-five years, so I know quite a lot about the molecular programming of those types of neurons. You lose them with Parkinson’s disease and they are involved in many other psychiatric disorders. Based on the knowledge of that cell, we have formulated a number of new ideas for medication. We have recorded this in a series of patents. In order to further develop this towards medication, we then set up a spin-off together with the UvA holding. We are now looking for a relatively large investor to bring the new medication into the clinic. Our major target is Parkinson’s.

Theoretically, we can translate everything we do for Parkinson’s one-on-one into other disorders, such as schizophrenia, ADHD, et cetera; it’s all on the same page. But for clarity and focus, we have said: the focus is Parkinson’s, because there is no good medication for that yet. So it is imperative for an improved alternative to emerge.

Have there been any recent breakthroughs in your field that are relevant to this work?

One recent breakthrough is in technology: single-cell transcriptonics. That is really a breakthrough, because we can now determine from one cell what is in it and what function that cell has. That has provided a lot of insight into what exactly is going on in a cell. Also because you can now compare that exactly, for example with animal or cell models, so that you can really see what you are doing. And it helps us understand why humans are different from, for example, mice and other animals. That is essential when it comes to medication development. A lot of medication development fails during the stage of human trials. Before that, everything seems to be working fine: a new medication is tested on animals and it works. And then the question arises: does it work on humans? Until recently, I couldn’t provide a good answer to that.

So single-cell transcriptonics has opened up the field tremendously. And there aren’t a lot of people who know and can do that, but I’m in the middle of it. I also know exactly what to do because I’ve been working in it for twenty years, that helps. This breakthrough represents a significant and momentous advancement in our level of understanding.

It’s like going from a map to a direct view of a landscape.

Yes, it is. Precise.

What does your collaboration from Macrobian Biotech look like with other parties at the Amsterdam Science Park? For example, do you share knowledge with knowledge institutions?

Here at the UvA, of course, certainly. The researchers of my company are also part of my research group, and that’s also nice, then there is a lot of crosstalk. To be honest, that is also the power of having a spin-off in the university: you continuously have a flow of information from a fairly fundamental research group, where, if you have an eye for valorisation, you can discover a lot of opportunities.  What I find truly remarkable about this profession is the ability to integrate various roles and functions. Once you are prompted to explore those possibilities, you begin to envision an ever-expanding array of opportunities. It broadens your perspective, enabling you to swiftly translate fundamental inventions into practical applications.

Do you also work with other companies?

I am now looking for cooperation with pharma companies and I am looking for investors, either from the pharma or from a general investment angle. But in that early development that we are in, where intellectual property is essential, you are still fairly on your own.

Do you think that cooperation is still coming?

Our approach is rather distinctive, making it challenging to simply approach another company for assistance. They have no idea. However, during the course of medication development, collaboration becomes essential, particularly when considering drug delivery to patients. In such cases, it is crucial to seek out companies with expertise in this area, some of which may have already accomplished the entire production process. This enables seamless integration. Without a doubt, we will actively pursue collaboration with chemists to ultimately outsource the production of such a drug.

What do you think the ecosystem at Amsterdam Science Park has to offer companies like Macrobian Biotech?

The good thing about the Science Park is that you have a lot of specific know-how and drive around you. I think that’s really cool here. The connection with a strong university partner, such as the UvA, is worth a lot. There is no doubt about that for me.

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