Perla Bjork Egilsdottir and Karl Karlsson. Photo: Anton Brink

A great deal of work has been done in research and development at 3Z but now the company is at a crossroads and a marketing push has yielded a lot of attention from pharmaceutical companies.

“3Z Pharmaceuticals originally stems from work in a small sleep laboratory here at Reykjavik University,” according to Karl Karlsson, the company’s co-founder. We used fish instead of rodents and during the process, we invented and developed all sorts of tools, software, and processes to measure large groups of fish in one go. Then we got the idea to use these robust processes in the search for new drugs,” says Karl, continuing: “Instead of focusing on sleep only, we started looking at other diseases. We elicit a human disease in the fish and develop reliable and fast methods for distinguishing between sick and healthy individuals. Following this, we can test out new drug candidates on sick individuals and get on track towards discovering new and promising drug candidates.”

Karl mentions that the company has already created disease models to mimic Parkinson’s disease, motor neuron disease, epilepsy, and sleep disorders, adding that they will be adding more disease models, for example for certain mental illnesses and even other neurodegenerative conditions, pain, and neuralgia.

Opportunities in CNS disease research

3Z decided to focus on central nervous system diseases and the company’s CEO, Perla Bjork Egilsdottir, mentions three reasons for the interest being shown to 3Z by drug companies.

Firstly, the pharmaceuticals companies have been increasingly turning to outsourcing when it comes to research services – this means they seek out specialists for the drug discovery process. This is particularly common when it comes to animal research since it requires a lot of work and expertise which is costly. So there is a lot of demand for reliable techniques that can speed up the drug discovery process.”

Secondly,” says Perla, “there have have been very few new CNS medications in recent decades and the numbers are going down even further, in fact. The reason is that studying these drugs is difficult without animal research, and this is very expensive when using traditional lab animals like mice or rats. We, on the other hand, offer a new high-volume method where multiple drug molecules can be evaluated within a short timeframe.

Thirdly, there’s the motivation for finding new drugs for CNS diseases which present a very high cost for society.”

The many benefits of zebrafish

According to Karl, the drug development process is constantly getting longer and increasingly expensive. “Statistics from 2016 show that the average time to market for a newly discovered drug compound is 12 years, and the average cost is 2.6 billion dollars. Behind every drug, there are often around one-hundred-thousand compounds that have been tested for their potential. That’s why it’s so important to be able to exclude non-starters early on in the process and this step invariably requires animal testing, which is traditionally very expensive. Our methods, on the other hand, allow for a speedier and less expensive process and we can test very many different compounds within the scope of a single project.

What are the advantages of using fish?

“There are many advantages. The results are as useful as when using mice or rats but the time and cost are not at all comparable,” says Karl, who is very used to using mammalian lab animals in his studies. “When I got home from the U.S. there was no rat laboratory here and no way to finance that.”

“So I had to find an alternative.”

“Since fish have a central nervous system I saw that I could use them for research, and their upkeep wasn’t expensive,” he says, also mentioning the increasing requirements in animal welfare. “We make sure to do our research as humanely as possible. We don’t have to anesthetize or operate on the fish; we place them in small measuring wells and the drug compound is placed in the water. The fish absorbs the drug molecules through its skin and then it’s monitored with video equipment, so we never have to touch it.”

But how closely do the fish resemble humans?

“Lego bricks are a pretty good analogy. You can build different structures with the bricks, but each brick is exactly like the next. It’s the same with fish and people; there’s about an 85% genetic resemblance between us and them,” he says.

Working across disciplines

“There are 7 employees at 3Z and a group of interns, usually between two and six who come from universities abroad, from Reykjavik University and from the University of Iceland. We’re doing a lot of cross-disciplinary work and it’s important to have specialists within each respective field. We’ve got machine engineers, coders, geneticists, neuroscientists and people in marketing. We also cooperate with other schools and institutions. We’ve had access to microscopes at the University of Iceland, gene sequencing at Decode Genetics and histological work at the Institute for Experimental Pathology at Keldur, Iceland. This is what it takes for a company in our field of innovation to thrive,” says Karl.

A lot of interest from pharma companies

“The growth strategy for this company has been very wise,” says Perla. She believes it was the correct decision to do the ground research before moving into the marketing stage. “We benefit from the fact that 3Z took off really early. It’s the only company in this marketspace, worldwide, that’s specializing in CNS diseases. The company has a large repository of comparative data which is very valuable and this means we’re always one step ahead.

3Z has revealed new dimensions in drug development,” she says.

“We didn’t have any clients during the first years, from 2010 to 2014, we were simply testing and gathering data,” says Karl. He continues: “In 2014 we took on the challenge of testing out 1.200 already marketed drugs to see what kind of results we got – we really needed the comparative data to keep on developing our approach. Then, in 2015-2017, we had 4-5 clients with smaller projects but in 2017 we started doing work for a Japanese drug manufacturer around MND drugs. This has been our largest project and is far from over,” says Karl.

A push in marketing

Perla mentions a marketing grant from Iceland’s Technology Development Fund. “We sought the advice of marketing specialists to get us in front of the drug developers, and it’s been surprising just how incredible the demand for our services has been,” says Perla adding that in 6 months the company made dozens of new business connections and signed two deals, one of which was a framework agreement. “We’re also in discussions with a new player regarding the development of a model for a psychiatric disease, which is a tremendously exciting project.”

Own drug development

3Z will grow fast in the coming years, if everything goes to plan, and will need to move into a more spacious locale. “We anticipate offering more services in the near future and when we achieve more stable income streams we could start developing our own drugs,” says Karl. “We’d start by redefining existing drugs and trying to uncover new functionality. After that, we’d expand our expertise from CNS diseases into other types of conditions such as heart disease, metabolic illnesses, and cancer.”

Karl stresses that the company would never have become a reality without the good support of Reykjavik University, the New Business Venture Fund, the Technology Development Fund and private investors who brought in their knowledge from within different fields. “Having the university’s support, in the beginning, has been extremely important,” he adds.

The road ahead is therefore brightly lit. 

Says Karl: “We want to increase our services, add new disease models, diversify our client base and develop our own drugs.”