Professor Jens Schwamborn is a professor at the University of Luxembourg, principal investigator at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) and co-founder of one of Luxembourg’s only lab-based biotech startups OrganoTherapeutics. In this exclusive interview, he tells us more about the innovative spinoff which uses mini-brains to find a cure for Parkinson’s.
How did you come up with OrganoTherapeutics?
I was recruited by the University of Luxembourg to run a lab at the LCSB. We were working on in vitro modelling of diseases, in particular Parkinson’s. We reached a point where we thought that it would make sense to bring our lab findings and innovations to the market. After founding our first company in 2016, which was more service-oriented, we incorporated OganoTherapeutcis a few years later which was focused on Parkinson’s again.
Why is Parkinson’s an important disease to study?
For 60-65-year-olds, roughly 1% of the population gets Parkinson’s. Above the age of 85, this rises to 3%. While the numbers are still relatively low on a global level (7 million), they are going to double by 2030 because the worldwide population is ageing dramatically. The number of patients is also increasing rapidly, faster than that of Alzheimer’s for example, which some think is due to environmental factors like air pollution. So it’s only going to become a bigger burden for the healthcare system.
What tech innovations does OrganoTherapeutics use for its in vitro modelling of Parkinson’s?
We use lab-developed technologies called midbrain organoids or mini-brains, which are 3D structures that resemble the human midbrain, a region we are particularly focused on because it is the main region affected by Parkinson’s disease.
In a nutshell, we take a patient sample, which can be skin or blood, and then take cells from there and change them genetically in a way that they resemble embryonic stem cells, so they can pretty much do anything. And then we expose them to a cocktail of factors in a three-dimensional matrix that makes them differentiate into these 3D brain organoid structures.
What is it about the midbrain that allows you to better understand and hopefully alleviate some Parkinson’s symptoms?
One of the cardinal features of Parkinson’s is that dopamine-producing neurons are degenerating, in particular those sitting within a defined region in the midbrain. By using a sample from a patient and reconstructing mini-brains we can, in most cases, see parts of their pathology and hopefully better cure the disease in the future. While the disease has similar properties among patients, the molecular underpinnings and affected pathways can be very different.
What have the results of your research shown you so far?
By now, we are pretty good at recapitulating the pathology. We’ve successfully done that with dozens of individuals both in terms of understanding what’s happening in their brains and better understanding some of the molecular processes involved. And while we’re currently in the process of testing a large library of small molecules that could be therapeutics, we are also looking at genetic targets as an alternative approach.
Running a lab is considered financially more challenging than most software-based medtechs. How have you managed to stay afloat these past years?
We’ve been profitable every year so far, which has been quite nice, especially since we incorporated OrganoTherapeutics right at the beginning of the pandemic. We’ve achieved this by partnering with other companies and conducting services for them or partner projects. We also completed three accelerator programmes successfully (one was Fit 4 Start) and recently got two large European grants within research consortia.
Editor’s note: The startup recently received funding from KHAN-I
How would you describe the support you’ve received from the Luxembourg ecosystem so far?
Currently, the funding options for biotech companies are rather limited. There is one larger fund that operates in that sector but that’s only relevant for companies that are already deep into clinical testing – so maybe five to six years from now. As for the business angels and the investment ecosystem, they are not very experienced in the biotech sector, hence it is unfortunately complicated for us to obtain local investment.
We do a lot in Luxembourg in terms of training, education, outreach and mentoring. But when it comes to hard support it becomes a bit difficult. We have this bio incubator which is a fantastic development, but it needs equipment and a service structure to become a real asset.
This takes time, of course, but I think more support that would lead to immediate benefits for companies would also be important. Just as an example, it is very easy to receive training or mentoring on how to address e.g. a legal question but what I would actually need is support (in this example a lawyer) to whom I can talk and who can actually actively solve the issue.