At AbolerIS Pharma, it’s all about creating balance. The Belgian/French biotech company is gearing up for clinical trials of a novel therapy for stabilizing chaotic immune systems. As CEO Ann Meulemans explains, it requires finding the right interplay between management’s industry experience and passion, cutting-edge science from company founders, and capital from investors.
Meulemans’s career stretches from what she calls the “golden cage of big pharma” to the “wild west of biotech.” A seasoned veteran at leading teams through the drug development process, she holds a Ph.D. in Biology as well as an MBA, and began as a bench scientist at Janssen Pharmaceuticals in Beerse, Belgium.
“I was lucky,” Meulemans muses. “I started there when Paul Janssen was still active, and he was an inspiring leader.” A legend in the pharmaceutical industry, the Belgian physician and drug company founder led the development of many life-saving medicines. He was also notorious for regularly popping into labs to see the latest data. “He came every week, asking: ‘What’s new?’” Meulemans recalls. “Then he would say, ‘Ann, it’s important because patients are waiting out there.’ And that’s something that still drives me after all these years.”
Meulemans rose through the ranks of Janssen and its parent company, Johnson & Johnson, but left in 2007 to build and lead an early development team at the biotech startup Movetis. In 2013, she co-founded 2 Bridge, a company that provides support and leadership in pharmaceutical and health product development. In 2020, the life sciences investment firm Newton Biocapital contacted 2 Bridge on behalf of one of its seed investment companies, AbolerIS Pharma.
“They had solid and innovative science,” Meulemans explains, “but not the experience to translate that into a company and what is needed to do drug development.”
Formed in 2019, AbolerIS Pharma’s founders — Prof. Ignacio Anegon, M.D; Prof. Carole Guillonneau, Ph.D.; and Prof. F-Xavier Hubert, M.D., Ph.D . — incorporated cutting-edge expertise gained as researchers with the Center for Research in Transplantation and Immunology at France’s Nantes Université. The company’s lead compound is an anti-CD45RC monoclonal antibody, which shows promise in eliminating certain effector T-cells of malfunctioning immune systems that attack the body while properly working regulatory T-cells are increased in relative ratio. It’s a potential game changer in the treatment of autoimmune disorders.
The current standard of care for autoimmune patients broadly eliminates T-cells, raising patients’ vulnerability to infection. AbolerIS Pharma’s anti-CD45RC therapy offers a more targeted treatment that could allow patients to keep their immune system’s natural defense. Pre-clinical data also indicates it would have a longer-lasting effect with fewer dosages than current therapies.
Although AbolerIS Pharma plans to test the monoclonal antibody for a specific disorder, it has the potential for wider use. “We are working on a proof of concept in one application: rheumatoid arthritis,” says Meulemans. “But if the compound proves to be safe and active, we can move to other applications, different kinds of autoimmune diseases. It can treat a lot of patients in need.”
When Meulemans became CEO of AbolerIS Pharma, her main focus was building a company that could turn a lab discovery into a clinical drug. It was the early days of the COVID pandemic, so she had to recruit the team, create a budget, form strategic plans, and lead everyone — all while working remotely. It was a whole year before travel restrictions were lifted, and she could meet anyone else at AbolerIS Pharma in person.
But Meulemans says the most important part of her role was to bring money to the company. Pre-seed and seed financing covered the initial costs of bringing everyone together and preclinical work, but more funding would be needed for any clinical studies.
“My focus, up till now, was to bring in a significant amount of both non-dilutive and Series A funding, which would allow us to go into the first human trials and first patient studies,” Meulemans explains. “It’s a new molecule, so we need to be sure that it’s safe and is tested under the highest standards for clinical success.”
In February of 2023, Sound Bioventures was approached by the Barcelona-based Caixa Capital Risc, which had recognized the potential of AbolerIS Pharma’s targeted approach for autoimmune therapies and was looking for a co-lead in the company’s Series A. The resulting due diligence by the Sound Bioventures team struck Meulemans as thorough, but there was also something else. “They really took their time to try and understand the science,” she says. “We got a lot of questions, but it was always in a supportive manner.”
By July of 2023, Sound Bioventures was an investor. Meulemans describes it more like the anticipated addition of a pivotal partner than a VC firm merely contributing financing. It seems AbolerIS Pharma gained both funding and a partner in the drug development process. Sound Bioventures would be there to advise and offer support in preparing clinical strategies, choosing contractors to run the studies, and anything else needed to ensure the first clinical phase begins by mid-2024.
“It doesn’t feel like they’re on the sidelines watching what we’re doing. It feels like we’re one team,” explains Meulemans, who believes that sense of unity is necessary for success. It takes scientists, drug developers, and investors working together to transform something microscopic into a new life-changing therapy.
“It’s not just the molecule, it’s also the people who make the difference,” says Meulemans.
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