Pioneers of Halle-based OntoChem are treading new paths in their discovery of knowledge for pharmaceutical research
Scientists from the small Halle-based company OntoChem GmbH are pioneers in their field. “There is no other company in this field in Europe”, says CEO Dr. habil. Lutz Weber. “You will only find something similar in the USA.” When he founded the company based in Halle (Saale) in 2005 together with Prof. Dr. Ludger A. Wessjohann from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry in Halle, both had the innovative idea to promote the development of new active ingredients and pharmaceuticals with computer-based methods. “We are taking new paths by gaining knowledge for pharmaceutical research”, explains Lutz Weber.
Much has happened at the premises of the “Weinberg Campus” technology park in the ten years since the company foundation. In the meantime, IT employees have developed a specialised search machine which compiles the properties of certain substances. Information from worldwide scientific publications, books, trade journals, websites or package inserts of medications is compiled at the push of a button, so to speak. He explains it by means of a practical example: “If someone would like to know what has ever been written about the active ingredient acetylsalicylic acid contained in aspirin, we compile the data and statistically evaluate it afterwards.”
In practice it is primarily about natural substances: plants are a unique and renewable source for the discovery of potential new active pharmaceutical ingredients. Almost 60 percent of western medicines have their origin in herbal ingredients. Nature provides a large, partially still unexplored arsenal of active ingredients in the fight against cancer, viruses and other threats. “There is a great deal of literature and much data on natural substances. But now it is a matter of consolidating and evaluating this, and drawing the right conclusions for their application”, explains Lutz Weber. Renowned corporate groups from the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, among them DSM, Beiersdorf and Novartis, take advantage of the IT know-how from the Halle-based firm.
Yet the OntoChem research efforts not only take place on behalf of other companies, but also lead to own new developments. For instance, the OntoChem innovation “CytoPep” promises hope for cancer patients. During their work in a project with the University of Leipzig, the scientists came across a new active ingredient that can be utilised in a few years in the battle against a particularly insidious form of breast cancer known as metastatic or also “triple-negative” breast cancer. But while the chances of a permanent cure have improved for many breast cancer patients due to early detection and new treatment methods, this does not apply to this form of the disease. “Up to now there is no promising therapy for this particularly aggressive form”, explains Lutz Weber. Previous treatment methods such as chemotherapy and antibody therapy are either linked with serious adverse effects or not efficient enough.
“CytoPep” is based on a new functional mechanism. It releases its active ingredient directly into the cancer cell. A so-called “peptide” that purposefully adheres to the metastatic cancer cells and introduces an active ingredient that kills the cell is used in this connection. Healthy cells remain spared. “This should help the affected women to feel better and prolong their life”, says Lutz Weber.
But it may take several years until the active ingredient has become an approved medication, because the formalities for authorisation are stringent. It is a long and cost-intensive path. Up to 20,000 patients must take part in worldwide studies and be taken care of for several years in order to investigate the efficacy. “Clinical development brings about high costs. A person needs investors or takes the path via out-licensing”, says Lutz Weber. “That means you sell the developmental and marketing rights to the medication.” OntoChem found a British licence partner in May.
In 2013, OntoChem GmbH was awarded the “IQ Innovation Award Central Germany” for the development of a new therapeutic approach with “CytoPep”. But the employees – biologists, chemists, pharmacists, computer linguists and computer scientists – are not resting on their laurels. A cream to treat cellulite was recently tinkered with in the company. The cosmetic product is currently being tested and must prove its efficacy in tests lasting several months so that the idea can become a marketable product. “We were able to win over an investor from Switzerland”, says Lutz Weber happily.
He intends to establish further international contacts at the “CPhI Worldwide” pharmaceutical exhibition in Madrid. OntoChem will be presented at the State of Saxony-Anhalt joint stand. In particular, the European Union’s REACH regulation on the transport of chemicals on the road will play a role there, says Weber. This regulation obligates the industry to examine the danger of chemical substances for humans and the environment and to mark the substances accordingly. Data regarding toxicity must be submitted so that it can be estimated how dangerous certain substances are for humans. “We can automatically generate this data and prepare a report. Surely several companies at the exhibition in Madrid will be interested in this”, says Lutz Weber while looking ahead optimistically.
Author and photo: Dana Toschner on behalf of IMG Saxony-Anhalt