Confo-dently into the future!

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Cedric Ververken
Confo Therapeutics is a rising star in Belgium, featured on several local and international lists of up-and-coming biotechs. The company, launched in 2015 as a spin-off of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and VIB, is now taking the big step from the preclinical to the clinical stage with a GPCR drug for neuropathic pain.

Confo is regularly compared to Ablynx and argenx – local biotech stars which are also working with llama-derived antibodies. Despite the similarities, Confo’s technology is very much its own: based on the work of Nobel Prize laureate, Brian Kobilka and research from the lab of Jan Steyaert at VUB, Confo has developed a platform enabling drug discovery for GPCRs – a large family of proteins that play a role in numerous diseases but are notoriously difficult to drug. GPCRs are often hard to screen in the lab because they are unstable outside of their natural environment, but Confo’s antibodies – ConfoBodies® – keep the proteins stable, enabling the mass screening and identification of potential targets for diseases that were previously undruggable.

A promising solution for pain

In 2019, Confo Therapeutics raised a EUR 30 million Series A financing round to take the big step from preclinical- to clinical-stage company with its first drug candidate (CFTX-1554).

“This is really a big milestone for us,” says CEO, Cedric Ververken. “We started as a technology company – a spin-out from academia with a very cool platform, but no therapeutic candidates. Over the past six years, we have built the company, improved the platform, and started our own drug discovery. In early 2022, we will be dosing the first subject with one of our own molecules – identified using our own platform – which we are confident will be safe and efficacious in patients. It’s very exciting!”

Read this article to find out more about Confo Therapeutics’ technology.

Confo is jumping into the deep end with its lead candidate, which is being developed for the treatment of peripheral neuropathic pain – a challenging indication.

“It’s not an easy disease area,” Ververken admits. “Many neuropathic pain projects have failed, but there is a huge need for new analgesic medicines. Although there are approved products on the market that are treating lots of patients, they either are not working very well or have significant side effects. For example, gabapentinoids are quite effective analgesics, but they also have sedative effects and are abused as recreational drugs. A large percentage of patients will also stop responding to them at some point. Then, their only other option is opioids, which of course have severe side effects of their own and issues with addiction.”

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Few new products have been found in the last decade, but Ververken is confident that Confo’s lead candidate has what it takes to make a difference. One of the reasons for this is prior validation of the target by another company: Australian biotech Spinifex. Bought by Novartis in 2015 for USD 200 million, Spinifex was developing a molecule called EMA401, which proved efficacious against neuropathic pain but ultimately failed in clinical trials due to toxicity issues in chronic dosing.

“We understand why EMA401 was toxic,” Ververken says. “It’s related to the chemical structure. Our molecule has the same target as EMA401 but a completely different chemical structure, so we’re expecting the same efficacy but none of the safety issues that Spinifex faced.”

Helping the Belgian ecosystem flourish

In addition to its lead compound, Confo has also been working on the rest of its pipeline. Although the Confo platform initially used antibody tools to drive small molecule drug discovery, the antibody technology has been updated and is now being used to also identify therapeutic antibodies. This opens up the opportunity for more partnerships, and for further drug development for Confo itself – the second most advanced program in the pipeline is now a therapeutic antibody, being developed for an orphan indication in the metabolic space.

“Neuropathic pain is such a broad indication that at some point we will need to partner with a pharma company, whether for clinical development or commercialization. But by picking orphan indications for several of our other candidates, we can shoulder the late-stage clinical development (and maybe even market the drugs) ourselves,” says Ververken. “This is the direction we’re going: keeping the company independent and trying to establish our own footprint.”

“This is the direction we’re going: keeping the company independent and trying to establish our own footprint.” – Cedric Ververken

Despite his ambitions for autonomy, Ververken is also making sure to strengthen ties with partners, new and old. Previously, Ververken has spoken about how the Belgian life sciences ecosystem has helped Confo to grow. Now, the CEO wants to help that same ecosystem flourish.

“Confo and other emerging biotechs in the area are really helping to build the Belgian biotech brand. We’re not Boston yet, but we’re on the right track! There are a lot of international investors looking for the next argenx/Galapagos/Ablynx to invest in, and local ambitious companies help strengthen that view. For example: AgomAb (a Series B company which, like us, is backed by V-Bio Ventures), recently announced an acquisition – not many start-ups would even dream of that!

“We are also determined: we want to build value for patients, but also for the local ecosystem. If you look back at European companies 5-10 years ago, they might not have been ambitious enough; partnering out assets too soon, which means capping the growth of the ecosystem.”

“We want to build value for patients, but also for the local ecosystem.” – Cedric Ververken

One of the things Ververken thinks might help to foster that ambition is empowering new entrepreneurs through informal mentorship.

“Whenever I can, I try to advise people who are moving into the start-up sphere; now and then I also like to call up other CEOs just to brainstorm. I tell my management team to do the same if they have the opportunity to speak with their peers in other companies. An informal network of advisors helps everyone, strengthening the entire ecosystem, which in turn encourages even further growth.”