Fishing Peptides

A start-up from Adlershof develops innovative cleaning procedures for natural substances with a therapeutic effect

The EnviroPep team uses laboratory and office space provided by the BAM

Meet three young and ambitious chemists. Although two of them are currently working on completing their PhDs, these researchers have been busy developing innovative ideas with regard to the environmentally and economically friendly production of peptides. Peptides are proteins which are comprised of up to 100 amino acids. These natural substances can also be produced through chemical synthesis. In form of hormones, for example, peptides are the carriers of important biological functions. They can affect inflammations or work against bacteria and viruses.

The three founders are called Oliver Reimann (FMP – Leibniz-Institute for Molecular Pharmacology), Robert Zitterbart (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin,HU) and Dominik Sarma (BAM Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing) and their start-up is EnviroPep. “Our aim is to be able to purify peptides after synthesis more effectively and with less effort,” says Sarma. He is sitting in the project office, which, like the laboratory next door, has been provided by theBAM. The project was helped along by the HU’s start-up service as well as Oliver Seitz, a professor at the HU’s institute for chemistry, as a scientific mentor.

Since last September, their start-up is being supported with around 700,000 euro by EXIST, a start-up programme of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs. The plan is to add a business manager to the team soon, who will work out a business plan – in cooperation with the BAM – and help make the technology marketable. The founding of a private limited company is planned until February 2018.

If they are successful, they have great chances on the market. Peptides are promising candidates for therapeutic agents. They are produced in two stages: synthesis and purification. “Many demand 99% purity,” says Sarma. This is commonly achieved using high performance liquid chromatography, or HLPC, a very complex separation process. EnviroPep has developed an alternative method that is more efficient in terms of time and costs as well as more environmentally friendly, because it makes the use of organic solvents obsolete. It includes marking the peptide with a “catcher molecule” after synthesis. Then the reaction solution is put through a filter, which holds on to the marked peptide and lets the contamination through. The catcher molecule is then separated resulting in a purified peptide. Sarma calls this method “catch and release” with a nod to the language of fishing.

Thanks to variable filter sizes, the procedure can be flexibly used on the milligram and kilogram scale. It is also much better at separating peptides with very similar physical and chemical properties than chromatography. The method is also suitable for working on many small amounts of peptide solutions at the same time, which facilitates the establishment an automatization of peptide libraries.

In light of these many possibilities, it is easy to get a bit nervous as a founder. Sarma prefers looking at it as “positive tension”. He sees his start-up as “well-equipped, flexible and confident”. Good project management will help them to identify critical phases and react accordingly.