Q&A with Alice Brown

July 2024

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background and what initially brought you to Purespring?

My background is in biochemistry and immunology, and I began working in the kidney field in 2006 during my PhD, which was funded by the UK’s largest kidney charity, Kidney Research UK (KRUK).  Since then, I have spent my career in advanced therapies working across both big pharma and early-stage biotech companies, moving cell and gene therapies from discovery through pre-clinical development and into the clinic. Purespring was therefore an opportunity I couldn’t resist, because I could bring my knowledge of gene therapy drug development to bear in a disease space I was already passionate about.

Gene therapies are unique in the sense that they have the potential to truly target and fix the cause of a patient’s disease rather than just manage or alleviate symptoms. Purespring was the first company to put serious effort into bringing the power of gene therapy to the kidney disease space, an industry sorely lacking in innovation.

Purespring’s scientific founder, Professor Moin Saleem, has done much to advance understanding of glomerular diseases and bring AAV gene therapy to the kidney space and this was a key factor in my decision to join Purespring. The founding science was incredibly exciting.

You and your team presented an oral presentation at the 61st European Renal Association (ERA) Congress in Stockholm, Sweden in April. Tell us about why this meeting was important and why you went?

The ERA Congress is the largest annual nephrology conference in Europe and one of the biggest worldwide. It’s a time when the global nephrology community come together to discuss the latest innovations emerging in the field and build key relationships. This is increasingly important as Purespring moves towards becoming a clinical-stage company.

Separately, as someone who’s deeply invested in the nephology space, it’s also a great opportunity to meet others in the space, reconnect with colleagues old and new, discuss potential collaborations, meet our partners and share together in the latest discoveries.

Nephrology is starting to be an exciting space after years or decades of low innovation, and the buzz was tangible at ERA this year.

Can you provide an overview of the data and insights that you and your team shared and what it means for the broader gene therapy field?

My colleague, Sam Illingworth, Head of Translational Research, presented ‘A novel podocyte gene therapy enables pathway to clinical translation for the treatment of glomerular diseases’ as part of the ‘Experimental studies into glomerular diseases’ session.

This was a really exciting moment, as it was the first time we presented on our AAV platform, which directly targets the kidney, and more specifically, an important cell type called the podocyte to the nephrology community.

The podocyte is at the core of kidney function and at the heart of our scientific approach. It is implicated in over 50% of kidney diseases, and, in the past, the inability to directly target the podocyte has been a major barrier to treatment. Our podocyte-targeting approach has the potential to allow us to directly treat and cure a significant proportion of kidney diseases, and this really opens up the space in terms of what indications we can target.

Were there any specific sessions or presentations at the ERA Congress that you found particularly interesting this year?

This year’s ERA Congress theme was ‘rethinking kidney health, transforming kidney care,’ an ethos which is heavily reflected in the work we do at Purespring. Up until recently, there has been minimal innovation in the kidney world, and many patients still lack satisfactory treatment options beyond dialysis and transplantation, both of which can come with complications and drastically affect an individual’s quality of life, so it’s great to see the industry unite behind this theme.

No clearer was this than in the multiple  sessions, including ‘Recent trials in glomerular nephritis’, which highlighted the recent approvals and highly active clinical development landscape in glomerular diseases, in particular IgAN.  Driven by step changes in the understanding of kidney disease biology and innovation in surrogate clinical endpoints, this shift to treating the mechanistic causes of kidney disease is bringing a wave of new treatments and investment in nephrology.  Follow up sessions focused on both disease mechanisms and novel technologies to dissect kidney disease, and this is likely just the start of a new era of therapeutic development for kidney patients.

There has been incredible innovation in the gene therapy field in recent years, but it still remains a highly competitive field. What sets Purespring’s gene therapy approach apart from others in the field of kidney disease treatment?

Purespring is the first company to directly target the podocyte using gene therapy to treat chronic kidney disease, an approach which was validated by a breakthrough paper published last year by Professor Moin Saleem and his colleagues in Science Translational Medicine.

There’s a lot of other elements of our platform which give us an ability to target the podocyte.  For example, we can use the same AAV vector capsid and promoter for all our products, shortening development timelines, reducing risk and uncertainty while also minimising costs. This approach allows us to achieve efficacy and efficiency, with lower dosage levels and improved patient safety.

This is a huge area of unmet need: around 840 million people globally suffer from kidney disease, so you can see how exciting this opportunity is.

What do you like most about your job?

Through my experiences of working with complex modalities, such as cell and gene therapies, I have a passion for building teams that bring different perspectives to scientific questions – in biotech, you have to have a differentiated approach to research and development, as well as flexibility within an organisation to move quickly and lead the field.

One of the most important skills I learnt during my time at GammaDelta and Takeda is knowing when approaches are working and when they are not. This is particularly valuable skill to have when working at biotech companies where resources are finite. You need to ensure that you focus your team’s energy on the programmes that will bring the most value to patients.

A final, but important, lesson that I learned is to always try to make work enjoyable. You can achieve a lot in a day as a scientist: every day presents a learning opportunity, but also a challenge. This comes back to the importance of flexibility, balance and a strong internal culture. I’ve found that Purespring has fostered an incredibly fun, supportive, and creative environment where everyone can flourish and develop key skills, and I’ve loved working alongside such a talented group of individuals.


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