Advancing Colorectal Cancer Treatment: VU researcher Felix Paulußen joins Faculty of Impact

May 29, 2024

Felix Paulußen has been selected to join the Faculty of Impact program. He is working on a new treatment for colorectal cancer that targets the β-catenin/Wnt pathway with peptide-derived agents. We interviewed Felix about his work and aspirations.  

The Faculty of Impact, a collaboration between Universities of the Netherlands, Techleap, and NWO, focuses on major societal challenges through thematic rounds, with this round emphasizing Life Sciences & Health. This initiative offers two years of intensive training and guidance in entrepreneurship, aimed at helping researchers commercialize their innovations. 

How did your previous experiences lead you to this point? 

I started working on peptide-derived therapeutics during my PhD with Prof. Grossmann and Dr. Luirink (both VU). Together, we managed to design a novel antibiotic that even showed activity in a Zebrafish model. After finishing my PhD, I sought projects with more translational potential. Prof. Grossmann introduced me to his plan to develop novel colorectal cancer (CRC) therapeutics in a spin-off setting, which I enthusiastically joined. 

What impact do you hope to achieve with your research? 

Colorectal cancer affects 1.9 million people annually and almost 1 million die as a consequence. Currently, surgery is the main treatment option. However, frequently systemic treatments are necessary. These are associated with severe drawbacks. We want to develop a targeted therapy that unlike previous approaches focuses on an underlying cause of CRC. This way we hope to obtain a therapeutic, that improves patient health outcomes and lowers treatment costs. 

Can you explain in simple terms how your peptide-derived agents target colorectal cancer and what makes them different from existing treatments? 

In contrast to current treatments we address the underlying problem at the level of gene activation, which could provide a more potent and selective drug. Our compounds inhibit the interaction of the protein β‑catenin with a transcription factor that regulates activation of specific genes associated with cancer cell proliferation. Inhibiting this interaction likely decreases the viability of cancer cells. 

What is the plan for the next two years of Faculty of Impact training? 

I want to use the next two years to further improve our compounds and show that they are active in relevant cell line and/or in vivo experiments. Positive results would greatly enhance our chances to attract funding for future compound development. 

Are there risks associated with this project? Why do you think it’s worth pursuing the development of peptide-derived compounds for CRC treatment despite these? 

It is a risky project, with many pitfalls. However, the potential upside is huge which in my view tilts the risk/reward ratio in favor of the positive. In general, the peptide field is ‘coming-off age’ with peptides being increasingly successful in the clinic, which makes me hopeful that we can also achieve our goals. 

Why do you want to perform the research in a start-up setting? Why did you apply for the Faculty of Impact program? 

We want to develop the therapeutic in a start-up to gain access to a larger funding pool and with that accelerate compound development. Personally, I am very happy to be selected for Faculty of Impact because I realised, that to make this project a success, more than just peptide expertise is required. The Faculty of Impact allows me to learn more about these business and IP questions. 

IXA’s support

Dalila el Ouarrat, Business Developer for the Life Sciences at VU IXA-GO, introduced the Faculty of Impact Programme to Felix Paulussen. IXA is pleased to assist researchers with the application process for such programmes and offers consultation on other funding opportunities and partnerships to advance valorisation projects.