Dr. Rafel Simó Vicens has been a part of the REBBLS CORE group since August 2017. He has recently defended his Ph.D which investigated the pharmacological inhibition of KCa2 channels as a new therapeutic target for the treatment of atrial fibrillation. We asked him for an insight into his research and found out what he is up to now.

 

Dedicated to new drug discovery for cardiac diseases

During the last three years, I have been working on my PhD in conjunction with a Danish pharmaceutical start-up called Acesion Pharma, which is developing safer and more effective drugs for the treatment of atrial fibrillation, the most common type of sustained arrhythmia. Atrial fibrillation is a cardiac condition characterized by rapid and uncoordinated contractions of the upper chambers of the heart, the atria, and, although it is not deadly by itself, atrial fibrillation can greatly reduce the quality of life of patients and, more dangerously, increase their risk of suffering a stroke by 5-fold. In order to revert the heart to its normal pace, clinicians may use a group of drugs called antiarrhythmics. However, many of the currently available antiarrhythmics are not very effective and may trigger dangerous adverse effects, such as ventricular fibrillation, which is the rapid and uncoordinated contraction of the lower chambers of the heart, the ventricles. Ventricular fibrillation can be deadly; therefore, the use of currently available antiarrhythmic drugs is limited. In order to avoid these adverse effects, it is necessary to develop drugs that only affect the atria but not the ventricles by targeting only proteins important for the function of the former but not the latter. One of these proteins is the small conductance calcium-activated potassium channel (KCa2), whose pharmacological inhibition has proven to be a promising and novel antiarrhythmic therapy in many different models. For the last few years, Acesion Pharma has been leading the development of drugs that specifically target KCa2 channels in the atria to be used as safer and more effective antiarrhythmic drugs.

 

Contribution through research

As a PhD student at Acesion Pharma, I helped the team to pharmacologically characterise the most promising compounds developed by the company, including their clinical candidate AP30663, which just reached Phase II clinical trials, by assessing their potency, selectivity, mechanism of action and antiarrhythmic potential among others. Moreover, I also helped the company identifying new KCa2 inhibitors and finding new ways to improve and optimize the existing ones.

 

Life after academia…

Before I finished my PhD, I was approached by Ankrin Therapeutics, a new start-up company developing innovative oncology drugs that disrupt vital protein-protein interactions during homologous recombination, a highly important DNA repair mechanism used by many cancerous cells. The company offered me the position as Research Project Coordinator which involves many kinds of activities, especially in such a small company! Because of the challenges, the possibility to learn many different skills different from research and the opportunity to work in a new, stimulating and innovative environment such as the BioInnovation Institute, I accepted the offer and I couldn’t be happier!