Alzheimer’s disease scares the bejesus out of millions of aging Baby Boomers, who fear they’ll lose their memories and everything that makes them who they are. The biology of the disease has stumped researchers and pharma companies for years. The field is crying out for fresh entrepreneurial thinking. Now a couple prominent biotech entrepreneurs are taking a shot at it with a startup called Alector.
The new San Francisco-based company, incorporated in May, is now up and running with an undisclosed Series A venture financing from Polaris Partners and OrbiMed Advisors. The startup is led by CEO Arnon Rosenthal and Tillman Gerngross, the chairman of the board. Rosenthal is best known as the co-founder and former chief scientist at South San Francisco-based Rinat Neuroscience, which was acquired by Pfizer for about $500 million in 2006. Gerngross also has a track record building Lebanon, NH-based GlycoFi (acquired by Merck for $400 million that same year), and more recently as the co-founder of Adimab, a successful antibody drug discovery shop.
Alector, which draws its name from the Greek term for reality-based philosophy, isn’t providing a whole lot of specifics on what it’s trying to do. But Rosenthal says the company is seeking to develop specific antibody drugs aimed at new genetic-based targets for Alzheimer’s, which should be able to alter the course of the disease, rather than just treat symptoms when it’s too late. So Alector isn’t some new spin on the class of BACE inhibitors, or a slightly different way of attacking amyloid or tau proteins that are thought to play a role in loss of memory and cognition in elderly folks.
Rosenthal said he’s unaware of any pharma or biotech company going after the same molecular targets as Alector, and although the company has filed for patents to protect its work, it isn’t ready to identify those targets just yet. During the company’s stealthy early days, Alector has run several antibodies from Adimab through animal models. The targets are difficult to access, and Alector is leaning on Adimab for help in going after them, because its fast discovery platform enables it to make lots of different antibodies with different binding properties that may be needed for the job.
“We hope to describe our targets in 6-12 months when we have more data,” says Rosenthal (pictured above).
Although the company isn’t saying how much cash it has raised, Rosenthal said it’s enough to run the company for at least two years and get it to the point where it can start Investigational New Drug application studies required by the FDA to enter clinical trials.
Rosenthal and Gerngross had been talking casually for a few years about starting a company together someday, and Alector is the result of those talks, Rosenthal says. Essentially, Rosenthal and his team of a half-dozen scientists in San Francisco are working on their biological ideas, and their work is enabled in large part by the antibody discovery platform at Adimab. The way it’s set up, Alector is paying for access to the Adimab discovery platform to get antibodies to work on, like any other pharma company would turn to Adimab, Rosenthal says. Adimab doesn’t have an equity ownership position in Alector, but Gerngross and Adimab co-founder Errik Anderson do have personal equity stakes, and they will be helping Alector with business development, financing, and other operational tasks, Rosenthal says. “They are very talented people,” he says.
The grand ambition at Alector is to come up with a drug for Alzheimer’s that can be aimed at patients with a specific genetic predisposition. That means it would be able to find patients before symptoms get out of hand, and recruit these likely responders based on a strong scientific rationale—something nobody has been able to do successfully in Alzheimer’s. The hope is that the deeper understanding of genetics will enable Alector to sidestep some of the issues that have troubled Alzheimer’s studies in the past. Many trials have been dogged by the heterogeneity of the clinical trial population, which sometimes doesn’t even include Alzheimer’s patients, but also ropes in other forms of dementia.
One other major bugaboo for Alzheimer’s trials is that patients get treated when too much damage has already been done. “In general, it’s better to treat early,” Rosenthal says. “At a certain point, the pathology is irreversible.” It will be years before Alector will find out if its ideas are on the right track, but it could be big news for millions of people in this group.