Targeted protein aggregation: the CEO's perspective on Aelin's story

Aelin Therapeutics CEO Els Beirnaert answers a few questions about the company's vision and the importance of breakthrough VIB research.

This blog post is part of VIB Neuroscience in the spotlight.

Proteins are the main biological workhorses in our bodies. They are involved in everything from brain health to muscle building. Sometimes, though, these proteins stick together and form unwanted clumps - the plaques and tangles in Alzheimer's disease are famous examples. Should we avoid all protein aggregation then? Not necessarily. Work by the Switch lab (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research) enables targeted protein aggregation. With the help of algorithms and short protein fragments known as peptides, we can now target specific proteins for aggregation. Applying this to disease-causing proteins provides a way to design new therapies for a wide range of conditions.

This paradigm shift in protein aggregation formed the foundation of Aelin Therapeutics in 2017, a spin-off by VIB, KU Leuven, VUB, and UGent. Now, with the Leuven Protein Aggregation Meeting taking place, we spoke to Aelin Therapeutics CEO Els Beirnaert.

Els Beirnaert (Copyright Aelin Therapeutics)
Els Beirnaert (Copyright Aelin Therapeutics)

Can you tell us a little bit about Aelin’s vision, about the technology, and future goals?  

Els: "Aelin Therapeutics is built on Pept-in technology and that, in turn, is built on algorithms that can predict which parts of proteins are prone to stick together. With that knowledge, we can design short protein fragments – peptides – that can cause a target protein to aggregate. This can be used to deactivate disease-causing proteins or destabilize pathogens or target cells. ​ 

Our ambition is to develop Aelin as a platform company and at the moment we are focusing on two lines of research: oncology and infectious disease. Novel treatments for difficult-to-target cancers in the first case, and new antibiotics in the second. ​ 

"We are now at the stage of transitioning from drug discovery to drug development, which is very exciting and brings us even closer to the patients."

Once upon a time, you worked at VIB yourself. How did you end up at Aelin as CEO?  

Els: "I started at VIB in 2010 with a focus on starting up new ventures. Before that, I worked at Ablynx, a VIB spin-off, which focuses on the development of nanobody technology. When I was introduced to the idea of targeted protein aggregation, I was immediately intrigued. ​ 

In 2017, VIB, KU Leuven, VUB, and UGent, spun out Aelin Therapeutics to take the Pept-in technology to the next level. There was a problem, though. Our candidate CEO stepped down at the very last moment. We had come so far, and I truly believed in the technology, so I filled in as interim CEO. Now, almost five years later, I’m still here. The board and I were both convinced I was a good fit so I took on the role permanently."

As you said, Aelin began its journey as a spin-off of VIB and KU Leuven, VUB, and UGent. How closely do you still work with those partners?  

Els: "From the start, there was a lot of mutual trust. Joost and Fré (Joost Schymkowitz and Frederic Rousseau, Switch Lab) were in full control of the experiments while they gave me the freedom to attract investors and pursue funding opportunities. To this day, we work closely with the founding lab and we benefit greatly from VIB’s Core Facilities."

Finally, for people who are thinking about the jump to industry/start-up land, but are not entirely sure yet. Any tips or encouragement?  

Els: "Go for it! It can be an inspirational experience that teaches you a lot. In start-ups, you’re often given a lot of opportunities and you have the possibility to chart your own course. There are a lot of routes to personal and professional growth in a start-up, all you have to do is take them and make it happen."

Gunnar De Winter

Gunnar De Winter

Science Communications Expert, VIB

Learn more

If you want to dive deeper into brain health and disease, explore some of our resources, like our Alzheimer's facts series, or keep an eye out for interesting news and events where our researchers share new insights. We also have plenty of open positions for people eager to join us on our multi-faceted mission to unravel the mysteries of our brain.

Visit the webpage to find out more about VIB Neuroscience in the spotlight.



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