Professor Steven Ballet, head of the Organic Chemistry research group at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, has received the international Evotec Award for Excellence in Molecular Design from the French Société de Chimie Thérapeutique. He was selected for his development of a generic tool molecule that accelerates drug development, using a technique that mimics natural proteins. “We hope this will allow us to take a step further in the development of drugs for cardiovascular diseases and pain,” says Prof Ballet.

Drugs often act on receptors located in the cell. Ballet and his colleagues developed tool molecules that allow them to freeze a cell’s dynamic receptors in a more accessible form. “The tools we developed are not precursors to drugs,” says Ballet, “but chemical compounds that allow for easier identification of drug candidates. At the level of the cell membrane, on the outside, there is an opportunity for drugs to bind with the cell. After they bind, they transmit specific information to the cell that ultimately creates a therapeutic effect. We’ve developed compounds, called helix peptides, that cause membrane receptors to freeze in an active form, making them more receptive to active drug precursors. If you find those precursors of the drugs faster, you also find the final drugs faster. Our work focuses on G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), the main class of therapeutically exploitable targets in the human body. By mimicking the natural G protein with the helix peptides, we can apply the technology in a generic way on numerous GPCRs relevant to a wide range of diseases. Conditions like asthma, high blood pressure, Parkinson’s or depression. This work has significantly strengthened a link in the drug development chain.”

According to Ballet, this demonstrates the strength of VUB. “We worked with Confo Therapeutics, a VUB spin-off,” he says. “They rely on nanobodies, miniaturised antibodies, which require a development process for each receptor type. By focusing on the natural G protein, we’ve been able to develop a more generic tool with Confo.” 

Evotec SE, the company that awards the prize, is a publicly listed German drug discovery and development company. “If a company like this, and the medicinal chemistry community, picks up our research, it’s a sign that they see the added value of it. In addition to academic recognition through publication in Angewandte Chemie, a leading science journal, industry recognition is also very important. They recognise that these tools will be very useful in practice.”