22 June 2021

Drug screening for the treatment of respiratory diseases

Interview with Dr. Torsten Fauth and Dr. Alice Kleber on the potential use of in vitro cell models developed at BRAIN Biotech for drug screening in the field of respiratory diseases.

Dr. Thorsten Fauth and his team at BRAIN Biotech have been researching ion channels for some time, most recently with a view to their role in epidermal regeneration. Using an ion channel cell model established at the company, drug or cosmetic companies conducting research for dermatological products can test how these ion channels ("targets") are influenced by their drug candidates. Meanwhile, Fauth and his colleague Dr. Alice Kleber also see the cell model being used in drug discovery in the field of respiratory diseases – for example, as so-called active repurposing. We asked the two about this in more detail.

Torsten, so far you have focused your cell models on skin diseases and the ion channels involved. How did you come to the conclusion that the cell models can also be used for drug discovery in respiratory diseases?

Torsten Fauth: We are eagerly following the latest technological developments and scientific publications dealing with COVID-19 research. In doing so, we have noticed that the role of ion channels, which we at BRAIN have previously investigated in other contexts, is also repeatedly discussed in respiratory diseases.

We therefore extensively reviewed the literature on the molecular and cell biological mechanisms of airway and lung function and observed the following: The mechanisms and key players in fluid secretion or barrier function in the airways are, in part, very similar to the mechanisms and players in the sweat glands, salivary glands, and epidermis. These are research fields in which we have been active for a very long time and have developed a wide variety of model systems with which we can specifically identify new active substances in high throughput processes – we are talking here about an order of magnitude of several tens of thousands of substances.

We think that the opportunity to find an agent based on our cell-based screening capability, which promotes mucus clearance or prevents water accumulation in the alveoli, for instance, should not be missed. Especially since the issue of "respiratory diseases" also plays a major role with regard to the long-term effects of COVID-19.

“We think that the opportunity to find an agent based on our cell-based screening capability, which, for example, promotes mucus clearance or prevents water accumulation in the alveoli, should not be missed.”

Dr. Torsten Fauth, Research Scientist and Platform Coordinator at BRAIN Biotech AG


Are you thinking here of the new development of pharmacologically active substances?

Torsten Fauth: Not necessarily. There are many active substances that were originally developed for a specific medical use but which were later found, after looking at them again with a different focus, to have further properties that make them a drug candidate for other applications. For example, if such agents are used to control fluid secretion, they could also have a positive function on mucosal cells when administered, for example, via a nasal spray.

Another example is that agents that improve the skin barrier via activation of ion channels could also improve the barrier of the lung epithelium, which is severely compromised in COVID-19. This is particularly interesting if the same ion channel is responsible for this in both skin cells and lung epithelial cells.

Is the topic "activation of ion channels" a kind of basic research for you and your team?

Torsten Fauth: Yes and no. We are already very research-driven here, but at the same time there is the idea of a concrete possible application behind it. I would therefore describe our activities as "application-oriented basic research". The basis are our cell-based Screenline® assays, with which we identify target molecules in vitro and test their influence on keratinocytes. We can also adapt these assays to other cells, e.g. lung epithelial cells.


Alice, as a member of the Business Development team, you are the contact person for companies interested in a development partnership. What opportunities do you see for such an R&D partnership in connection with cell-based assays?

Alice Kleber: We have established some relevant targets of respiratory diseases in cell culture systems capable for screening. We can offer these test systems to a partner to search for drug candidates: either combined with our substance libraries – pre-characterized collections of so-called small molecules that could be tested for a potential effect – or the partner provides its own substance collections, which is particularly interesting if, for example, the substances are already approved as drugs. If one can assign a further effect to these, one could apply them faster; this is called "active repurposing". We are happy to make our cell-based test systems available for both options.

What does BRAIN Biotech expect from an industrial partner? And what can the partner expect from us?

Alice Kleber: At BRAIN Biotech, we are focused on industrial biotechnology. Many of our developments are requested by customers from the food industry, the chemical industry or even the cosmetics industry. We know our way around these industries. The healthcare industry has moved a little closer to us with our proprietary development of Aurase®, and we have also run individual developments for the pharmaceutical industry.

Nevertheless, our expertise remains biotechnology. This is where we can contribute our many years of experience. We expect a development partner from the pharmaceutical or medical technology industry to contribute its expertise and experience in active ingredient development and the regulations of the industry.

“We have established some relevant targets of respiratory diseases in cell culture systems capable for screening. We can offer these test systems to a partner to search for drug candidates…”

Dr. Alice Kleber, Manager Technical Business Development at BRAIN Biotech AG


How far would such a development partnership go? At what point could a customer use the results for its own in-house development?

Alice Kleber: In the pharmaceutical environment, we see our role as an R&D service provider: If a customer has its substance libraries tested by us, it naturally retains all rights to the substance. We supply the active data and are happy to provide scientific support for further developments, but have no ambitions to develop our own drug substance.


You want to learn more about our cell-based assays or join in on an R&D partnership? Contact us via business@brain-biotech.com or +49 6251 9331 0.

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