Saverna are setting new standards for RNA-targeted pharmaceuticals

Interview with Dr. Kamal Azzaoui, CEO and co-founder of Saverna Therapeutics. With the support of the Catalyze Switzerland team, the BUTTERFLY project, led by Saverna Therapeutics, won a €1.4 million award from the Eurostars programme, which supports international and collaborative R&D projects led by small- and medium- sized enterprises. The project began on April 1st 2019 and will run for 36 months.

Image from Saverna Therapeutics.

The BUTTERFLY project…

Saverna Therapeutics has developed a drug discovery platform that combines machine learning and fragment-based screening. This platform greatly enhances the drug discovery process, allowing them to address the challenge of developing RNA-targeting small molecule drugs. Compared to common RNA-targeting drugs, (such as oligonucleotides), small molecule inhibitors are predicted to show far superior safety and efficacy, in addition to a significantly reduced cost.

In the BUTTERFLY project, Saverna is utilizing this platform with the aim of generating a first-in-class, small molecule drug targeting miR-155, a critical upstream microRNA (miRNA) regulator of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). The current lack of effective treatment options for patients with severe SLE means the production of the BUTTERFLY drug could improve the quality of life for 5 million SLE patients worldwide.

Furthermore, the BUTTERFLY drug will not only be the first small molecule inhibitor of miR-155, but of any microRNA. Therefore, with the BUTTERFLY project, Saverna can set a new standard for RNA-targeted pharmaceuticals, for years to come…

Founded on decades of industrial experience…

Dr. Azzaoui and fellow co-founders possess extensive experience in machine learning and drug design, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) screening and fragment-based screening, medicinal chemistry, and cell biology and assay development. Together this combined expertise formed the basis for the inception of their unique drug discovery platform, which utilizes fragment screening, NMR, and machine learning. Dr. Azzaoui described the how the company formed back in 2017:

Saverna was founded back in 2017 by four senior scientists. Together we have very extensive experience in drug discovery. We were interested in learning more about miRNA, as they are novel targets and at the time nobody was looking for drugs that could target miRNA. With this in mind, we used our combined expertise to build our unique platform based on fragment screening and machine learning. This platform optimizes the hit identification, hit-to-lead, and lead optimization processes.”

Connecting with Catalyze to bring the BUTTERFLY project to life…

A meeting over coffee with Catalyze’s Country Manager Switzerland, Virginia Ballotta, provided the initial spark that Dr. Azzaoui needed to propel his team’s project idea into a reality. With the help of Catalyze they soon decided to apply for Eurostars, a programme with a strong emphasis on cross-collaboration. For this, Catalyze coordinated the entire consortium-building process, introducing Saverna to a number of well suited companies.

Dr. Azzaoui described this process: “Our prospective partners were scanned by Catalyze, who then planned meetings where they introduced us to different companies. We decided to go with two of these companies for the BUTTERFLY project: SpiroChem, based in Switzerland, and Redoxis, based in Sweden. These companies were really complementary to our expertise and would enable us to combine hit finding with chemistry and biology.”

The meetings facilitated by Catalyze provided Saverna with the space to establish strong, personal relationships with their new partners. Additionally, Saverna was able to build relationships with other companies that were introduced to them, which could lead to additional collaborations in the future.

During the grant application process, Catalyze strives for the timely transformation of project ideas into an exceptional project proposal. Dr. Azzaoui highlighted this when asked about his general experience of working with the Catalyze Switzerland team:

“The Catalyze team did a really great job, both because of their punctual timing throughout, and because of the great writing that was put together. It was a quick turnaround from the moment we decided to go ahead with the [Eurostars] application!”

Receiving indispensable support…

For newly formed companies, a lack of funding is the biggest barrier to drive forward their innovative ideas. When Saverna first contacted Catalyze, the idea for their project was very much in its infancy. Dr. Azzaoui describes how the support from the Catalyze team was indispensable in progressing their work beyond this early stage:

“Receiving such a big grant was invaluable; without this public money it is very difficult to achieve something early on.

“An important point is that if I hadn’t met Virginia from Catalyze, we would probably still be raising money now, but instead we can spend €1.4 million on the project. Without this win it would have been tough to advance the project.”

Looking ahead, Dr. Azzaoui and the Saverna team plan to expand upon their maiden project, and apply their innovative drug discovery platform to other diseases:

“There is great potential for us to explore other diseases. In 5 years, we aim to have two drug candidates in the pipeline.”

Advice for the R&D entrepreneur…

Before we closed our conversation with Dr. Azzaoui, we asked one final question: what would you say to entrepreneurs seeking to take the plunge and start a company in R&D? Dr. Azzaoui believes patience, belief and a strong team can help you find success:

“If you want to start a company in R&D, have patience and believe in your dream. You also need to build a trustworthy team. The good thing about science is that you can see where you are going. It can be tough, so be psychologically strong. But when you have your first success, the reward is double, because it is personal; the end-result is your own creation. For that reason, it is quite rewarding. Ultimately, I would say believe, do not look back, fix problems as they arise and keep moving forward, keep learning!”


Win: Eurostars €1.4 million


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