Simmunext: where immunotherapy and chemistry meet

Simmunext Biotherapeutics is a spinoff of Radboud university medical centre, Radboud University and Oncode. Oncode Investigator and Radboud university medical centre professor in Tumor Immunology Carl Figdor, in cooperation with Paul Kouwer (molecular chemistry, Radboud University) has developed an innovative approach to create polymers which can act as artificial antigen-presenting cells to stimulate the immune system to obtain a therapeutic response.

Simmunext is a company name made of three words - a mix of ‘simulation’ (referring to simulating the immune system), ‘immune’ (referencing the immune system) and ‘next’ (indicating a next-generation approach). This describes the innovative approach of Carl Figdor, Oncode Investigator and Radboud university medical centre professor in Tumor Immunology. He has developed to create polymers which can act as artificial antigen-presenting cells to stimulate the immune system to obtain a therapeutic response. With a strong IP position and management team in place, the company is now ready for its journey to leverage this platform technology to bring novel cancer therapies to the clinic.

Immunotherapy and cancer

Decades ago, the scientific community was sceptical. Many thought that cancer was all about genetics and had nothing to do with immunology. But things have changed. Today it is widely known the immune system can contribute to fighting cancer, with successes seen for example in treating lung cancer and melanoma.

There are three types of immunotherapies used nowadays. Antibodies, vaccines and cell therapies, the latter using an effective method of taking cells from the patient, engineering them, then giving them back to the patient so they can fight the cancer they are engineered against.

Mimic the immune system

The lab of Oncode Investigator Carl Figdor has been working with dendritic cells for a long time. These are immune cells that present antigens to T-cells, which then target cancer cells expressing the antigen they are activated against. “I always found that because you are getting these cells from patients, the procedure can be very difficult. Sometimes the patient is not in such a good condition, or they are immunosuppressed. Or we simply don’t get enough cells. The protocol was always variable, because the material we could get from the patients was variable”, explains Figdor.

But after connecting with the chemistry department at Radboud University, he got interested in the polymers this department made. “I asked myself - could I try to mimic the immune system? Could I make artificial antigen-presenting cells by using polymers?” Figdor recalls. “Of course, these are not cells, these are polymers. But I could equip them with molecules that can also be found on immune cells.”

Soon enough he received an ERC advanced grant to develop this idea further and two years ago, received a second one to continue this work, helping him demonstrate what is now clear: that using chemistry to mimic live cells can work. “This also helped me develop the technology – the immunofilaments - that can efficiently make immune cells more fit and more robust for immunotherapy.”

Extremely versatile synthetic polymers 

The immunofilaments are made of synthetic polymers – a discovery made by chemists at Radboud University. Molecular chemist Paul Kouwer (Radboud University) is developing gels of the same type of polymers (polyisocyanopeptides or “PIC”) that have turned out to be very suitable for culturing human cells outside the body. We have known since their discovery in 2013 that these polymers are extremely versatile and we are still discovering new applications. It is fantastic to see that this material is also making an important contribution to Simmunext.”

Logical next step

The creation of Simmunext as joint venture of Oncode, Radboudumc and Radboud University– for which Henri Theunissen will serve as CEO - means bringing a decade of work to the next level and taking steps towards the clinic. “Without Oncode’s support, I wouldn’t so easily have taken this path. As an academic, starting a company never received priority. But the Oncode valorization team – Ian Bell and Shobit Dhawan in particular – stimulated me and convinced me this is the logical next step” explains Figdor.

“We want to develop a therapeutic drug and doing so is extremely expensive, not something an academic hospital can easily afford. We also secured several patents. We are in good shape and now the real work starts”, he says with a laugh. “We must make a big step to translate this to the clinic and the next two years are crucial in getting there” he concludes.

Literature reference

Dit bericht verscheen eerder (in het Engels) op de website van het Oncode Institute

Contact information

For further information, please contact one of the scientists involved or team Science communication via +31 24 361 6000 or media [at] (media[at]ru[dot]nl)

Organizational unit
Systems Chemistry
Innovation, Molecules and materials