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Speeding up drug discovery

A fascination for the brain and psychiatric disorders led Haraldur Þorsteinsson to neurobehavioral science and research, and to found a company dedicated to accelerate the development of neurological innovative drugs within the field.

Haraldur Þorsteinsson has always been fascinated by psychology and the brain. While working in a psychiatric hospital as a student he became especially interested in psychiatric disorders and research in that particular field. He holds a Bachelor of Science in psychology from the University of Iceland and a Master of Science in neuropsychology from the University of Maastricht, Holland.

The company sprung from research at RU Neurolab, a Reykjavik University based neuroscience laboratory, in which a zebrafish model for studying sleep and wake physiology has been in development since 2006.

Haraldur’s research experience in the field of neurobehavioral science eventually led him to co-found the drug development and contract research company 3Z Pharmaceuticals in 2008, together with Karl Karlsson, neuroscientist and professor at Reykjavik University. The company sprung from research at RU Neurolab, a Reykjavik University based neuroscience laboratory, in which a zebrafish model for studying sleep and wake physiology has been in development since 2006.

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“We realized that there was great potential in doing high throughput behavioral drug screens in transgenic zebrafish models of Central Nervous System (CNS) disorders, utilizing the amenability of zebrafish to high throughput screening and genetic engineering. By using this powerful drug discovery engine we aim to meet some of the high unmet clinical needs for new therapeutics in the field,” describes Haraldur.

 

Zebrafish offer insight into human diseases and express all human neurotransmitters and receptors.

 

Zebrafish, which have high genetic similarity to humans, lend themselves to genetic modulation and have a rich repertoire for behavioral phenotyping. They offer unique insight into human diseases and express all human neurotransmitters and receptors, which makes them very suitable for neurological screens, according to the company. Advantages include speed and a cost-effectiveness that is similar to cell-based assays, with high accuracy and scalability.

The company’s pipeline currently consists of four project in drug development and pre-clinical stages, targeting Parkinson’s, Schizoprenia, ADHD and EDS.

Facilitated by the zebrafish in vivo screening technology, the company focuses on the development of repurposed small molecule drugs targeting neurological indications. Drug repurposing is a drug development strategy predicated on the reuse of existing licensed drugs for new medical indications. The company’s pipeline currently consists of four project in drug development and pre-clinical stages, targeting Parkinson’s, Schizoprenia, ADHD and EDS.

A very multi-faceted job

Haraldur’s job title is co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer (CSO), but since the company is relatively small  he and his colleagues are required to take on many different roles.

“In my job I do various things, from managing day to day lab work and fish care to scientific work like study design, data analysis and writing. This, combined with marketing and communicating with clients, grant writing, etc., makes it a very multi-faceted job,” he says.

“We have a very collaborative team spirit and help each other out on any aspects where needed.”

The company consists of a very tight knit group of technicians and project managers, each of whom is responsible for a specific project. “Each week we hold meetings where we go over the status of projects and convene to decide the best way forward. We have a very collaborative team spirit and help each other out on any aspects where needed,” says Haraldur.

“The best part of the job is the variability and that no two days are the same,” states Haraldur. “I also very much like the creative aspect of working in science, that it requires creative thinking to solve novel questions and problems. However, working in science can also be frustrating when there is a need to navigate unexpected results and control unexpected variability in datasets.”

“I also very much like the creative aspect of working in science, that it requires creative thinking to solve novel questions and problems.”

A typical day at work starts at home by going through emails, he says. “Then I would go to the lab and continue with the projects at hand. Those could include designing our next screens, preparing a conference, proofreading a paper, etc. Right now we are designing and preparing rodent assays for our lead compounds in ADHD.”

Being a small company of course makes you vulnerable when a pandemic occurs, and during the COVID-19 pandemic the company had to close down the lab on at least one occasion due to staff quarantine, says Haraldur. “Also online conferences are a new reality for us,” he adds.

Being located in Iceland means having access to a strong medical science sector spurred by strong medical university faculties and private companies, such as deCODE and Alvotech, according to Haraldur. “We have strong expertise in genetics and generics.”

In his job, genetics developments are transforming the field, and he needs to stay updated on recent developments in genetic disease modeling, for example.

 

Haraldur Thorsteinsson together with his daughter. Photo: Private

Featured image: iStock

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