Neurologix Forges Ahead on Gene Therapy Treatment for Parkinson’s

6/23/11Follow @arleneweintraub

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shaking, freezing, and difficulty walking. “The gene we’re putting in restores the balance between GABA and glutamate,” says During, professor of molecular virology, immunology, medical genetics, and neuroscience at Ohio State University Medical School. “That enables the network that controls movement to restore that movement.”

Neurologix’s treatment is designed for Parkinson’s patients whose disease has progressed to the point where dopamine-boosting drugs have lost much of their effectiveness. The therapy is injected into the brain during a brief surgical procedure that patients undergo while awake, with local anesthesia. No follow-up procedures are required, making Neurologix’s treatment quite different than “deep brain stimulation,” a therapy that involves implanting a device in the brain that delivers electrical signals to relieve symptoms.

Kaplitt believes the convenience of Neurologix’s gene therapy will matter—not only to patients, but also to insurers. “With deep brain stimulation, we have patients coming back numerous times after surgery for three months or longer,” he says. “That’s limiting to patients and cost-inefficient to the healthcare system. Ours is a one-time procedure. Patients do not have anything left in their brain. There’s no batteries or wires in the body. We reduce the complications related to hardware. And patients don’t have to come back for repeated visits.”

In the Phase 2 trial, patients who received the gene therapy were compared to those who got a sham surgery. The gene-therapy recipients, who continued to take their medication, reported significantly more “on” time during the day—hours during which they were able to move and function normally. Improved motor control persisted for a year after the treatment. “The take-home message is that our therapy is effective to a degree that is sustainable,” Kaplitt says.

The FDA agrees, but the agency has given Neurologix a tall task. First, the company needs to complete a “crossover study”—meaning it needs to offer the gene treatment to the patients in the Phase 2 study who originally received the sham surgery. Assuming those patients don’t experience any unforeseen side effects, the company can then proceed to the Phase 3. Kaplitt and During estimate that if all goes smoothly, they’ll be able to start the Phase 3 trial at the end of 2012 and complete it one year later.

All that will take money, and that’s where the company is focusing its immediate attention. Neurologix CFO Marc Panoff says Neurologix has hired a strategic advisor to explore corporate partnerships as well as private financing options. The company previously raised $12 million in 2006 and $20 million in 2007, both in the form of preferred stock.

But having preferred stock on top of common stock makes Neurologix unattractive to some institutional investors, Panoff says. “We’re a public company but we’re capitalized as a private company,” Panoff says. “That makes it difficult for companies to invest. Our goal is to clean up the capital structure so we have a single security.”

Neurologix already has one strong corporate partner—Medtronic, which partnered to make the device used to deliver the gene therapy and which has invested $4 million in the company. Neurologix has had discussions with other potential corporate partners, Panoff says.

The Gelsinger death rarely comes up in conversations with potential investors or partners anymore, Kaplitt says. But that nagging fear-of-the-unknown does. “Nobody has made a gene therapeutic for sale,” Kaplitt says. “The main limitation is getting people’s heads around being the pioneer in a new area of medicine.” Still, Kaplitt says he has not lost his resolve to see his project make it to market. “We think gene therapeutics will change the way neurological diseases are treated.”

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