Acerta Pharma is one of the most successful pharmaceutical companies at Pivot Park. The discovery team has recently doubled in size and a significant expansion of the clinical operations team is imminent. Gerjan de Bruin, Senior Research Scientist at Acerta Pharma, talks enthusiastically about the buoyant growth.

In June 2016, Gerjan de Bruin obtained his doctorate in organic chemistry at Leiden University. And then what? A university lecturer from the department introduced him to Tjeerd Barf, one of the founders of Acerta Pharma, and that September De Bruin was able to start working for this young pharmaceutical company at Pivot Park in Oss. “That’s how fast it can go,” says De Bruin cheerfully. “Within a few months, I had a job.” De Bruin wanted to work in the pharmaceutical industry after graduating. “What appeals to me is that the research here is more concrete than at the university. Less academic, more focused. What could be better than working on the development of new medicines for the treatment of patients with cancer? I think that’s important. What is also important, of course, is the greater job security that you have here and the considerable research budget – compared to the academic world, where a great deal depends on short-term subsidies.”

Acalabrutinib
Acerta Pharma, which started off in 2011 as a small start-up, is a pharmaceutical company that has undergone rapid development in recent years. Tjeerd Barf and Allard Kaptein, former employees of MSD in Oss, with the help of the investor BioGeneration and the Brabant Development Agency (BOM), received funding to develop a new leukaemia drug. “It concerned the further development of a drug candidate whose development started in MSD. The substance works via a covalent bond, a technique in which it is possible to irreversibly link active substances to a so-called target protein, in our case the kinase BTK. This substance was later dubbed ‘Acalabrutinib’,” says De Bruin. “Covalent drugs disable the target protein for a prolonged time, even when the substance has already disappeared from the body. This allows you to work with a lower dose and this can have a positive impact on the side effects that patients have.”

Acerta
Investor Van Wezel of the BioGeneration investment group introduced Kaptein and Barf to a team of three American researchers who were engaged in similar research. In February 2013, they entered into a partnership under the name Acerta Pharma, an acronym of the first names of the researchers and the investor. In addition to the know-how on testing candidate drugs in the US, the Americans also brought the necessary investors with them. This accelerated the development of the leukaemia drug, now known as Acalabrutinib, which was first tested on patients at the end of 2013, and in 2015 Acerta Pharma officially announced the promising results of these tests. As a result, the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca acquired a 55% stake in Acerta Pharma by the end of 2015, with an option on the remaining 45% with the total deal worth USD 7 billion. The approval of Acalabrutinib was accelerated in 2017 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of mantle cell lymphoma. There are still dozens of studies under way to get Acalabrutinib approved for other types of haematological cancers as well.

Rapid growth
At the beginning of this year, the office area in Oss underwent a major refurbishment and the research laboratories were doubled. This was necessary in view of the growth of the chemical activities, which now consist of two teams. New colleagues have also joined the biology department. This makes it possible to run multiple projects side by side. De Bruin manages one of the chemistry teams. “We are working on several new projects in the field of haematological cancers. These cancers are still incurable, so there’s still a lot of work to be done. The chemistry teams work closely together with the biology group and the clinical sample team. For example, we analyse blood from patients treated with Acalabrutinib and use this information to find starting points for new drugs or treatments. In addition to discovery, there is also a clinical operations team in Oss. This group has already grown rapidly in recent years and it looks as if we will soon be able to expand with fifteen new colleagues. AstraZeneca has recognised the quality of this team and, in close cooperation with researchers from AstraZeneca in Cambridge, we are now going to focus on the early clinical development of new medicines.”

Branches
Acerta Pharma has three branches; one in Oss and two in the United States, close to San Francisco. “The US sites are primarily engaged in clinical trials and analysis of clinical samples of patients treated with Acalabrutinib. This is done in close cooperation with the groups in Oss. The discovery activities, which are aimed at finding and developing new medicines, are fully concentrated in Oss. We work closely with researchers from AstraZeneca in Cambridge and Boston. To be successful and be a force in the international arena, you need multidisciplinary research teams today. The branch in Oss now employs more than 40 people.”

Facilities
De Bruin is very pleased with the facilities at Pivot Park. “It’s an ideal spot for us to put down our roots. It is located centrally, and the facilities are very good. What also counts, of course, is that the expansion of Acerta Pharma was easy to realise on the Pivot Park site. In addition, for our research we work closely with many leading academic and medical research institutions around the world as well as within the Netherlands. We have a bright future ahead of us!”

Summary

Acerta Pharma is one of the most successful companies at Pivot Park.
The basis for the pharmaceutical company was laid in 2011 by Allard Kaptein and Tjeerd Barf, who, in collaboration with American colleagues, developed the successful leukaemia drug Acalabrutinib. Considerable investments by the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca will enable Acerta Pharma to expand further. The discovery group has already grown, and a significant expansion of the clinical operations team is imminent. Several teams of chemists and biologists are already working on new projects in the field of haematological cancers.