Turning drug discovery into speed dating

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Thamani Dahoun and Margaux Duchamp, cofounders of ArcoScreen  2022 Arcoscreen
Thamani Dahoun and Margaux Duchamp, cofounders of ArcoScreen 2022 Arcoscreen

EPFL spin-off ArcoScreen has developed a platform that turns the discovery of new drugs for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and cancer from a marathon into a sprint. The firm’s microfluidic readout system assesses the response of G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) to new substances, delivering significant time and financial gains for pharmaceutical companies.

The drug discovery process is often like looking for a needle in a haystack. On average, some 500,000 molecules will be assessed before a drug comes to market - and this process takes around 20 years from start to finish. In the early stage, firms select drug candidates for the target disease, submitting each molecule to a four-step review process that takes several hours to complete. The test developed by EPFL spin-off ArcoScreen provides the same result in just 15 minutes. What’s more, the test can be used directly on target patient cells, achieving more reliable results than the traditional approach using less realistic genetically modified cells, thereby reducing failure rates in the later stages of the process. The company’s platform could deliver substantial time and cost savings. This promising technology has enabled the company to secure grant funding and earned a string of awards: for instance, Margaux Duchamp, the firm’s CEO, was recently named in the Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe Science & Healthcare list.

Testing more G-protein-coupled receptors

Most people aren’t aware that the drugs we take to treat various diseases are often little more than messengers that bind to cell receptors, prompting the release of other substances in the body. G protein coupled receptors, or GPCRs for short, play a vital role in this process. "A study by the University of California found that nearly 35% of drugs - especially for common diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s - target these receptors," says Margaux Duchamp. The platform developed by her company, which is a spin-off of EPFL’s Microsystems Laboratory 4 (LMIS4), offers a fast, standardized and systematic way to test the response of these receptors to different drug candidates. And the use of primary patient cells makes these tests more realistic, allowing drug companies to identify molecules that will fail at the clinical trial stage and significantly shortening the discovery process.

Compatible with pipetting robots

ArcoScreen’s cofounders initially set out to develop a standalone test in a box. But, as is often the case with startups, they changed tack after talking to potential future customers - in their case, mostly pharmaceutical companies. Now, their platform fits seamlessly into the conventional testing process because it’s built to be compatible with pipetting robots and other standard laboratory equipment. It comes in the form of an assay that’s placed under screening plates, containing dozens of tiny test tubes. This design means no change in standard working practices for lab technicians.

Potentially active molecules are injected into the assay. The microfluidic readout system then detects whether or not the protein is activated and releases the intended messenger. The results are analyzed automatically to determine the effect of the drug candidate on primary patient cells.

A combination of the cofounders’ expertise

ArcoScreen combines the expertise of its two cofounders. Thamani Dahoun, who holds a PhD in biology and specializes in GPCRs, developed the concept behind the test, drawing on her background in biochemistry. Margaux Duchamp, who holds a PhD in bioengineering, used her expertise in microengineering to design the microfluidic chip. "I’d never dreamed of founding my own company," says Margaux, whose passion for science motivated her to develop this innovative system.

ArcoScreen’s potential hasn’t gone unnoticed on the startup scene, with the company having already secured funding and landed several awards. Since being created in July 2021, it has already obtained an EPFL Innogrant, been named a winner of the IMD Startup Competition, secured funds from Venture Kick’s third stage, and been selected for the Innosuisse startup coaching program. Armed with this injection of non-dilutive funding and backed by expert advice, the four-member team plans to fine-tune its technology and fast-track the finalization of its process. ArcoScreen hopes to raise an additional one million Swiss francs by the end of this year so it can manufacture its product at scale and quickly bring the platform to the market.