MEMBER NEWS: ImmuneSpec: “In the long term, finding a cancer treatment for every patient, that is our dream”

ImmuneSpec in the Archimedes Building has been in business for a year and is immediately achieving great results. The biotech company raised 1.2 million euros in pre-seed money and counts the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) among its customers. “You can compare our tasks with looking for a needle in a haystack,” says CEO and co-founder Elise Pepermans.

“As a starting biotech company, we first wanted to keep the start-up costs of our lab limited. These are heavy investments. What also played a role in locating us at the Science Park is the proximity to the University of Antwerp. During our start-up, Jade Verrept (cluster manager) of the Science Park) has supported us incredibly hard.”

“The green environment of the Science Park is quite inspiring. We all think it is an important aspect of the park, which makes working more pleasant. We also enjoy leaving our office behind and having meetings in the Harriet coffee bar. Our intention to take a walk with colleagues through the surrounding nature has finally been achieved several times in the past month. We had envisioned this from the start of ImmuneSpec, but it had not happened until recently. Purely due to lack of time. Because entrepreneurship means working hard every day and hitting your nose against the wall a hundred times, but getting back up every time and looking for a solution.”

“In addition to me, Geert Baggerman and Kurt Boonen are the co-founders. All three of us previously worked at the Center for Proteomics (CfP), a collaboration between the University of Antwerp and VITO (Flemish Institute for Technical Research). Geert was my supervisor when I was doing my post-doc research. As co-founders, we have all experienced that the entrepreneurial world is completely different from the academic world.”

“We have good contact with BioNotus, another entrepreneur at the Science Park, we are more or less active in the same sector and therefore fit well into the activities that the park focuses on (life sciences and environment). BioNotus has a number of mass spectrometers. , just like us. That was an expensive purchase for us. They had a specific question about one of their recently purchased devices and one of our co-founders was able to help them with this, given his more than ten years of experience. has with that device. On the other hand, we have also often been able to use BioNotus’ infrastructure, for example when we had a technical defect with one of our freezers. It is very nice to know that as a starting company you can contact your neighbors can.”

Immune Peptides

Explaining what exactly ImmuneSpec is concerned with is quite a task and cannot be explained in a simple manner. Elise (38, central in the photo) makes a nice attempt. “On the surface of every cell in our body, pieces of protein from within the cell are delivered to immune cells. These are immune peptides, which can cause an immune response if the immune cells regard them as abnormal. ImmuneSpec will purify and clean these pieces from the surface of the cell. We do this, among other things, in the context of cancer therapy development. Cancer cells are abnormal cells with abnormal proteins, so that they can be used to stimulate the immune system to attack the cancer cells. This is a form of immunotherapy.”

“We also do the same analysis for the development of new protective vaccines. We want to protect ourselves in advance against all kinds of pathogens, bacteria or viruses, in short, pathogens. With a vaccine we want to arm our immune system in advance against these pathogens. What we do at ImmuneSpec is determine immune peptides of the pathogens that our own immune system presents after an infection. This information can then be used to develop a best-in-class vaccine that provides very broad protection against the pathogen.”

HERAN Partners

“We raised 1.2 million euros in pre-seed money from healthtech investment fund HERAN Partners. I had a good connection with HERAN from the introductory meeting. Here too, receiving support was absolutely necessary for us. The HERAN representative sits in our board of directors and discusses matters with us on a weekly basis.”

“The 1.2 million pre-seed money was a well-considered choice to get off to a good start. Expanding a facility like this involves very large costs, such as the purchase of that mass spectrometer, for example. We also have new to attract staff.”

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

“Our customers include biotech and pharmaceutical companies throughout Belgium. We also currently have customers in the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland and the United States, in particular a close collaboration with the American government agency Food and Drug Administration (FDA). We plan our online meetings with them in the afternoon and early evening due to the time difference. We took the plunge and approached them at a conference. The FDA sent us some samples and compared our results with those of the company they worked together in the past. We extracted all the specific immune peptides that our predecessor had also found, but many more of these specific immune peptides which needs to find specific immune peptides that are crucial because they can recognize the cancer cells or protect them against the pathogen. You can compare it to looking for a needle in a haystack: you have to look at every blade of hay to ultimately find the proverbial needle. Finding those specific immune peptides, for example, makes patient-specific cancer therapy possible. Our dream in the long term is to find a cancer treatment for every cancer patient, that is what we want to work towards.”

“What we do with ImmuneSpec is a niche industry, because we only focus on immunopeptidomics. Competitors don’t do that. Our focus allows us to delve into our expertise and deliver the best results, providing the deepest possible insight into how the immune system can be activated, to our customers and partners. We maximize through higher sensitivity in our workflow, in our mass spec analysis and in our data analysis.”

“POM Antwerp has given us answers to the questions we had. As a result of the consultation, a passageway was built to the lab. We are now working on expanding that lab to a BSL 2 facility, so that we can also deal with, for example, virus infected samples can work. We cannot yet do this in our own labs and we have to rely on partner laboratories for this. This BSL 2 lab can only be realized if the environmental permit is extended.”