Saman Honarnejad was born in Iran (1983) and raised there and partly in Canada. He studied in Germany and the United States and now, he is a team leader at Pivot Park Screening Center (PPSC) based in Oss, the Netherlands. Here, he leads a team of assay development scientists and manages the Centre of Open Innovation for Lead Discovery (COILED) project at PPSC. A collaborative drug discovery consortium that brings together the University of Nijmegen, Nijmegen University Hospital and some of the biotech companies based in Pivot Park.
In 2004 Honarnejad moved to Germany to study biotechnology. “Germany was an obvious choice for me because my father and brother also studied there. I spoke a few words of German and in Mannheim, where I did my bachelors and masters, a large part of the lectures were given in English. Language was therefore not a problem. Studying in Germany is a privilege, because despite high standards; no tuition fees are charged by the universities.” After his masters, Honarnejad moved to Boston, to carry out his PhD at Harvard Medical School as a guest student. In 2015 he got a research position at the Max Planck institute in Cologne, Germany. When his partner was appointed professor at the University of Groningen, Honarnejad moved to the Netherlands with her. The position he was recruited for at PPSC turned out to be an excellent fit. “I already knew PPSC from the European Lead Factory, a large international project where PPSC participated and because of my scientific background, I already had a lot of experience with day-to-day activities at PPSC. Even though I find the basic research at the universities very important and with high impact, I always envisioned to pursue a career in the industry after my training. Research at the University is usually curiosity-driven and progress is slow but in the industry research is more goal and result-driven and timelines are very important”, explains Honarnejad.
PPSC (founded in 2012) is a spin-off from Organon/MSD. The company is profiling thousands of substances on daily basis to find substances that have the potential to become new medicines. PPSC endorses the new ‘open innovation’ approach to drug discovery research and builds on the long-standing experience in screening from the Organon/MSD years. “We have a unique library of thousands of substances that we make available to customers,” says Honarnejad. “Another legacy of Organon/MSD is our advanced robotic infrastructure for screening. Usually, you can only see such a robotic infrastructure in large pharmaceutical companies, but this infrastructure already existed here. PPSC supports the first stages of research in discovering new active substances (lead compounds) for developing new medicines. At PPSC it is all about new discoveries. We use automated processes, which enables us to analyze very large number of samples every day (High Throughput Screening, HTS). Running hundred of thousands of samples every day increases the likelihood of discovering something new that will someday help patients.”
Honarnejad has been the COILED project leader for some time now. This initiative funded by Europees Fonds voor Regionale Ontwikkeling (EFRO) joins the expertise of several biotech companies and university of Nijmegen with the aim of accelerating the discovery of aforementioned ‘lead compounds’. Open innovation is central to this effort. According to Honarnejad, even though low R&D productivity in discovery and development of new medicines within big pharma has led to an expanding market for innovative biotech companies; the efforts within this space are highly fragmented and alliances like COILED can result in coordinated, cost-effective and successful drug discovery. “Also, collaboration with universities closes the gap between the industry and basic academic research. We need to look for new ways to translate basic research into healthcare. That is why COILED, in which PPSC plays a major role, is such an important initiative!”