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Tom Keating on his work on rare diseases at Pretzel Therapeutics

In September this year, Sweden and US-based biotech start-up company Pretzel Therapeutics moved into its new office and lab space at GoCo House.

We sat down with Pretzel’s Senior Vice President and Head of Biology, Tom Keating, to talk about Pretzel’s work on rare mitochondrial diseases, novel biology, and what is needed for successful collaboration.

Mitochondria are the energy sources for our cells and when there is dysfunction in the mitochondria it results in various devastating diseases such as MELAS, NARP, and Leigh syndrome that can affect everything from the muscles to brain function, heart function, liver function, etc. Many of these diseases, which are genetically determined, begin in early childhood and are often fatal. As rare diseases, they have not been focused on as much as other diseases such as cancer and heart diseases have. Therefore, Pretzel was formed to better understand the biology around mitochondria and develop treatments based on this unique approach. Pretzel is currently building a therapeutic portfolio around these metabolic diseases.

Within the next few years, Keating anticipates that Pretzel will begin conducting clinical trials. One of the difficulties in doing this is to find the patients with these rare diseases. Mitochondrial diseases tend to be evenly distributed across large populations, but there are occasional areas where a “founder effect” results in a concentration of disease.

- If we can run clinical trials here in Sweden or Finland or Norway, we certainly will. We’ll go wherever the patients are, says Keating.

This is one reason why the office at GoCo Health Innovation City is a good place to grow Pretzel Therapeutics. However, the most prominent reason for Pretzel to have an office in Sweden, in addition to its Boston headquarters, is that Pretzel’s scientific founders are based in Europe at the University of Gothenburg, the Karolinska Institute and Cambridge University.

- But beyond having the founders here, there is a lot of well-trained scientific talent in Sweden. Particularly in Gothenburg, coming out of GU and Chalmers, there is a lot of excellent talent. Additionally, large companies like AstraZeneca have created a hub of scientific expertise and skill here, states Keating.

However, a more difficult aspect of getting established in Sweden, according to Keating, is that the infrastructure to support company formation is still developing.

- One thing Boston has is ready access to laboratory space where young companies can lease spaces and start their work without it costing a tremendous amount of money or forcing long-term leases, elaborates Keating.

In the life science industry, and many other industries as well, artificial intelligence is the one topic a lot of people are most excited about at the moment. Keating, however, thinks of AI as simply an exciting new tool.

- There has been a lot of other tools that have come before. Recombinant DNA, parallel synthetic chemistry and computers are all tools that have changed life sciences, drug discovery and medical sciences in dramatic and positive ways, and I am sure AI will do the same. But to me it is still just a tool, explains Keating.

Instead, Keating expresses excitement about discovering novel biology and finding out ways that those new discoveries can translate into new treatments for patients.

- An example from the last couple of years - no one knew what an mRNA vaccine was until the Covid pandemic came. Yet, the underlying biology around mRNA vaccines, which was laid down 10-20+ years ago, produced new options and new treatments that saved a lot of people, adds Keating.

Because of the value of new biology, Keating believes that Pretzel, focused on novel biology in mitochondrial disease, will make some very exciting discoveries and hope to change the field.

Continuing on the subject of new aspects of the life science industry, Keating thinks that there has been a transition happening in the last 10 years. More and more, higher risk and innovative research in biotechnology has been happening in smaller start-up companies rather than in larger, established pharma-companies like AstraZeneca, Merck, Pfizer, or Roche. Instead, those larger companies have used their expertise in areas such as development, clinical trials, marketing, commercialization, expansion and delivering to patients.

- Because of that, I think a trend that will carry on is that venture capital firms, universities, and scientists like those at Pretzel will continue to form small new companies focused on risky, innovative areas of science, says Keating.

This trend would mean that most research would be more divided among smaller companies, and development more divided into larger companies.

When asked about collaboration within life science, Keating expresses a need of defining what successful collaboration is and looks like.

- Everybody wants to collaborate more, but I think it only works when you have similar goals, a clear understanding of what all parties are contributing, good communication and a real commitment of resources and time, adds Keating.

Keating, who does think collaboration is important and has a lot of experience in working in a collaborative way, means that there are barriers to collaborating outside the company. It takes a lot of time, money, and resources to collaborate successfully and the many small companies in the industry might have limited resources.

Nonetheless, Pretzel Therapeutics as a company is very collaborative internally as they have their headquarters in Boston but their mitochondrial biology labs in Gothenburg at GoCo. This requires everyone to bridge a 6-hour time zone difference every day, as well as travelling back and forth and navigating laws in the different countries.

- But we do that because we have a shared goal within the company, and we are much more successful than we would have been if only set up in Sweden or only in the US. In fact, Pretzel itself is an example of successful collaboration, says Keating.

The dual locations, US and Sweden, were driven by the close collaboration between the Swedish-based founders of Pretzel Therapeutics and the US-based management team. Keating explains why Pretzel decided to establish at GoCo Health Innovation City.

- We were working in a very nice space at the University of Gothenburg to build the company, but that is not a long-term space to be in. GoCo was a really great opportunity in the same area, with brand new laboratory and office space that we could design ourselves, says Keating.

Further, he explains that all those reasons along with the beautiful space at GoCo House complemented by its services are very valuable for Pretzel. As a hub, he comments that it is nice to be among many different life science companies, including having AstraZeneca across the parking lot. However, it is difficult to comment on how it is going to turn out.

- As I mentioned earlier about collaboration, I think it happens for other reasons than companies just being next to each other. They need to take the initiative to go out and talk to each other, explains Keating.

Concluding, Keating expresses that he is very happy to be at GoCo and that Pretzel has taken the unique opportunity of moving in during the early stages of the area which allowed them to design their own space.

To describe GoCo Health Innovation City in three words, Keating says:

Innovation, Community and Sleek.

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