Six biotechs in Belgium making leaps in the clinic

Biotechs in Belgium

Belgium, the land of chocolate, beer, and waffles, has a thriving biotech and life science sector, with more than 300 biopharmaceutical companies operating in the country. 

The country is positioned as Europe’s second-largest biotech industry, and is renowned for its expertise in pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, and medical technology. Cancer and immunotherapy company Galapagos, originally based in Mechelen in Belgium, now has sites across Europe and the U.S., and is a big part of the biotech scene, both in the country and the European continent. 

In this article, we take a look at six biotech companies in Belgium that are climbing the ladder in the clinic.

Table of contents

    AgomAb Therapeutics 

    Based in the port city of Ghent in Belgium, AgomAb develops antibody treatments for fibrosis using technology licensed from the Dutch biotech company ArgenX. Fibrosis is a condition that can damage a number of organs, including the lungs, liver, kidneys, and heart. AgomAb’s antibodies can bind to a specific receptor found on epithelial and endothelial cells and trigger a cascade of processes that stimulate the regeneration of fibrotic tissue. 

    Most advanced in the pipeline is its Crohn’s disease candidate, AGMB-129. Crohn’s disease causes inflammation in the gut and intestines. AgomAb’s drug inhibits the protein ALK5, which is a regulator of fibrosis. In a phase 1 study, the drug was found to be safe and well-tolerated. It is currently in phase 2a trials.

    Its other clinical candidate AGMB-447 is being investigated for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a condition in which the air sacs in the lungs become damaged making it hard for oxygen to enter the blood. The drug, which also targets the ALK5 protein, is in phase 1 trials.

    Last October, AgomAb raised $100 million in a series C funding round to advance its fibrosis pipeline.

    Confo Therapeutics

    Also located in Ghent in Belgium is Confo Therapeutics, a biotech company that develops drugs that target G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), which are a large family of proteins that play a role in numerous diseases but are difficult to drug. 

    GPCRs are often hard to screen in the lab because they are unstable in vitro. Confo has developed a technology that keeps GPCRs stable, enabling the mass screening and identification of GPCRs in different diseases. This way, researchers can identify formerly undruggable targets and develop medicines accordingly. 

    With the help of this technology, it is developing its pipeline, which includes its clinical candidate CFTX-1554 for neuropathic pain. This is a condition where the nerves that carry sensory signals to the brain malfunction. CFTX-1554 inhibits angiotensin II type 2 receptor (AT2R), a target for the relief of neuropathic pain. Unlike painkillers like opioids, which are currently given to patients, Confo’s drug is designed to avoid side effects like addiction and sedation. The drug is being evaluated in a phase 1 trial in a collaboration with pharma giant Lilly.

    According to the licensing deal, Confo received $40 million upfront, and is eligible to secure up to $590 million in milestone payments. Confo has also partnered with Japanese multinational Daiichi Sankyo to discover medicines for diseases that affect the central nervous system (CNS).

    Imcyse

    Situated in the city of Liège in Belgium, biotech Imcyse was founded as a spin-off company of KU Leuven. Working in the area of autoimmune diseases, Imcyse develops immunotherapies based on synthetic peptides called imotopes. These peptides can block immune responses that trigger immune-mediated diseases, including type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. 

    Its phase 2 drug IMCY-0098 is a synthetic peptide to treat type 1 diabetes. This form of diabetes is caused by an autoimmune attack that destroys insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. The loss of beta cells leads to insulin insufficiency and hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), with patients eventually requiring lifelong insulin therapy to maintain normal glycemic control.

    IMCY-0098 is designed to control the progression of diabetes by stopping the body’s immune system from attacking beta cells. In a phase 1 study, the drug exhibited safety and tolerability.

    Imcyse’s other clinical candidate is for multiple sclerosis, a disease caused by the body’s immune system’s attack against myelin, the coating around the nerves that protects them from damage. IMCY-0141 is a synthetic peptide that aims to halt the destruction of myelin. At present, the drug is undergoing a phase 1/2 study where the safety of three dose levels will be measured, followed by a double-blind, randomized trial that will assess immune responses in patients. 

    Its preclinical candidate for rheumatoid arthritis – caused by inflammation and swelling in the joints – is being developed along with pharma giant Pfizer.

    Mithra Pharmaceuticals

    Specializing in women’s health, Mithra Pharmaceuticals has two sets of pipelines including drugs available in the market and sold in 100 countries as well as candidates in clinical development.

    One of its key areas of progress is in estetrol-based drugs. Estetrol is a type of estrogen that is produced by the human fetus during pregnancy. Mithra’s estetrol-based drug ESTELLE is a combined oral contraception that is available in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. 

    Its hormone therapy DONESTA is in phase 3 studies for menopausal symptoms. Some symptoms include hot flashes and night sweats, which are known as vasomotor symptoms. A number of other studies include randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials evaluating the effect of the drug on the skin, hair, and female sexual arousal disorder (FSAD) in postmenopausal women. 

    Apart from estetrol, it also has the contraceptive MYRING, and TIBELIA, a tablet made up of tibolone, for hormone therapy in menopause. Moreover, it is developing ZORELINE, a biodegradable subcutaneous implant for prostate cancer and breast cancer as well as for conditions like endometriosis – a disease in which tissue similar to the uterus lining grows outside the uterus – and abnormal growths in the uterus called uterine fibroids. 

    Headquartered in Liège in Belgium, the biotech company was recently granted two additional patents for NEXTSTELLIS, its estetrol-based contraceptive in the U.S.

    MRM Health

    The gut microbiome not only plays a key role in digestion but also assists with many body functions. Belgium-based biotech company MRM Health aims to harness the gut microbiome to develop therapies for inflammatory, CNS, and metabolic diseases.

    Its clinical candidate MH002 is being studied in phase 1b/2a trials for ulcerative colitis and pouchitis. Ulcerative colitis occurs when the colon and rectum – present in the lower end of the digestive system – become inflamed resulting in diarrhea, tummy aches, and fatigue. MH002 is a biotherapeutic that consists of six, safe commensal strains – microbes that are present in the body that don’t harm human health – that showed positive results in its phase 2a trial.

    The drug had a 12% improvement in the Mayo Endoscopic Severity score – a measure of inflammation in ulcerative colitis – while the score worsened by 5% with placebo. Significant improvement in stool consistency was also observed after two weeks.

    More recently, results from the pouchitis trial came back positive as well. Pouchitis is inflammation that happens in the ileal pouch. This pouch is typically created by doctors in the ileum – the end region of the small intestine – often during large intestine-removal surgery. This pouch allows patients to control their bowel movements, however, when this area becomes inflamed, it can lead to diarrhea, tummy ache, and cramping. MH002 was found to have a 46% clinical remission rate – a decrease in disease symptoms – and reduced inflammation. The study met its safety endpoint.

    The biopharma is also engaged in the discovery of drugs for Parkinson’s disease, type 1 diabetes, and an autoimmune disease called spondyloarthritis that affects the spine and the joints.

    Precirix

    Situated in the capital city of Brussels, Precirix is keen on advancing its radiopharmaceuticals portfolio as more and more biotechs across the world make strides in this space.

    Radiopharmaceuticals are drugs that contain radioisotopes that bind to biological molecules in order to target specific cells and tissues. Its phase 1 candidate CAM-H2 targets HER-2, a protein that promotes the growth of cancer cells in cancers like breast cancer.

    Research has shown the uptake of CAM-H2 in the brain lesions of patients where their breast cancer has spread to the brain. The phase 1/2 study will look at the drug’s impact on the spread of cancer. A dose escalation trial is also in the cards to ensure the safety of the drug.

    Besides, the CAM-H2  study has enrolled patients with stomach cancer and gastro-esophageal junction cancer, a type of cancer that begins at the region where the food pipe joins the stomach.

    Life science clusters in Belgium

    Belgium’s burgeoning healthcare sector is largely thanks to the various clusters that the country houses. The major life science clusters in the country are BioVille, the Brussels South Charleroi Biopark, and the Ghent Bio-Energy Valley

    BioVille in the city of Hasselt, is a hotspot for the healthcare sector, with a focus on medical technology as well as digital technology. BioVille’s DigiHub is for the advancement of e-health, with research and development in artificial intelligence and wearables.

    The Brussels South Charleroi Biopark hosts 90 companies and three academic research centers, and employs more than 3200 people. The biopark has an incubation program that helps young biotech companies create development and business plans to eventually be able to secure investors. The cluster is mainly involved in cell and gene therapies, immunology, neurology and cancer research.

    The Ghent Bio-Energy Valley is an initiative founded by Ghent University to boost biofuel and bio-enzyme production in a bid to create a biobased economy. 

    This article was originally published in January 2021 by Larissa Warneck-Silvestrin and has since been updated by Roohi Mariam Peter in May 2024.

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