At NTRC, chemists and biologists work closely together to develop new drugs, particularly against cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Chemist Freek van Cauter gives us a look behind the scenes.

Freek van Cauter (1988) joined NTRC in 2016. At first he wanted to study physiotherapy, but an open day at Avans Hogeschool Breda made him change his mind: “I just happened to join the introduction of the chemistry course, but I knew immediately: this was what it had to be. During my internships at large pharmaceutical companies such as Janssen Pharmaceutica in Belgium and MSD/Organon, my interest in the interaction between chemistry and biology became aroused. I then worked for a small company in Spain that carried out contract pharmaceutical research. Working on contract basis is very result-oriented: it simply has to be completed within a certain period of time. That creates a dynamic that I love.”

The NTRC laboratory consists of a chemical and a biological part. Van Cauter takes us on a small guided tour. “We make molecules here. How? Well, it’s a bit like cooking. In simply terms, you put a number of reactants together, and then you see if the desired product is formed. That’s what you call synthesizing. To ensure that the right product is formed, we have a number of analysis techniques at our disposal.” Van Cauter shows a few test tubes with the final result. “After the synthesis, the substance is purified and what remains is the molecule that is important to us. In our own laboratory we can make up to approximately 50 grams of a certain substance.”

NTRC is looking for new active substances for drugs, particularly against cancer and Parkinson’s disease. “Our partners, various European academic and medical centers, conduct leading research into proteins and targets, involved in various diseases.” In collaboration with Pivot Park Screening Centre (PPSC), a few doors away, NTRC will then look for substances that interact with the target. At PPSC they have a huge collection of substances, which can be fully automated and tested on targets within a few days. Substances that show an activity on the target, also called hits, are further optimized at NTRC. “We do this by making molecules that are related to the hits but have better properties, such as better target binding, higher selectivity compared to other targets in the body and better solubility and stability.” Van Cauter emphasizes that this is a very early stage in the chain that leads to new drugs.

NTRC is a relatively small company. It started in 2012 with ten people and now has 20 employees. “Because it is a small company, the lines are short and we can work flexibly and quickly. Many of these new employees have been trained here at NTRC. That’s important to us,” says Cauter. “We do a lot of education and always have a few interns from the different educational institutions we work with.” NTRC has a good reputation with educational institutions such as Avans and HAN Hogeschool, Utrecht University and Radboud University. NTRC also publishes regularly in scientific journals.

NTRC conducts independent research. It currently has three major projects of its own: two on candidate drugs against cancer and one on a drug against Parkinson’s disease. The Michael J. Fox Foundation has awarded an important grant to the latter project and NTRC has also secured some grants from the EU. The main source of income is the provision of services for other pharmaceutical companies, particularly in the field of cell biological work. Van Cauter: “The studies we do are all pre-clinical. Ultimately, we hope that the candidate medicines that we develop will be followed up and – under license – adopted by the pharmaceutical industry.”