Zenobia Therapeutics, Inspired by Warrior Queen, Focuses on Developing Drug for Parkinson’s Disease

4/22/09Follow @bvbigelow

Zenobia Therapeutics is an example of San Diego’s great biotech circle of life.

Vicki Nienaber, Zenobia’s founding president and chief scientist, started the specialized drug discovery company almost 11 months ago, after learning that Japan’s Rigaku Americas Corp. was closing ActiveSight, its San Diego-based biotech research division.

Nienaber found lab space at the La Jolla Cove Research Center, which was the original site of the Scripps Research Institute and other San Diego biotechs, such as SIBIA Neurosciences. She also has hired a few employees who were previously at San Diego-based SGX Pharmaceuticals, the oncology-focused biotech that was acquired by Eli Lilly for $64 million last August.

Nienaber also worked at SGX. She told me they recruited her from Abbott Laboratories, where she was lead inventor of a breakthrough in technology that fractures large molecules, such as proteins, into fragments, and screens the fragments for potential drug candidates after determining their molecular structure using X-ray crystallography. Nienaber joined SGX to head a similar program at the San Diego biotech, and led its strategic biology alliances with Novartis and Lilly. She says she left SGX because of the San Diego biotech’s increasing focus on developing oncology drug candidates.

Vicki Nienaber

Vicki Nienaber

“Almost all other fragment screening companies are focused on oncology,” Nienaber said. “I wanted to focus on areas that weren’t being served,” which mostly involved early stage research in diseases of the central nervous system—primarily Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s.

In recent years, Nienaber’s research has focused in particular on a protein known as “lark2,” for its LRRK2 scientific designation, which is believed to be overactive in Parkinson’s Disease patients. LRRK2 has been linked to a genetic mutation that occurs in Parkinson’s patients that causes neurons to die. One theory being advanced is that LRRK2 triggers apoptosis, a “programmed” cell death that causes cells to whither and die the way leaves fall from a tree in autumn.

Just weeks before Rigaku announced its decision to shut down ActiveSite, Nienaber learned she had been awarded a multi-phase grant for therapeutics development from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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