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Tapping UCSF Invention, Roche and Versant Dive Into Myelin Repair

When mice chew through the insulation that protects a house’s wires, an electrician can repair the wires. People with multiple sclerosis, whose immune systems malfunction and attack the insulation of their own neural wires, don’t have that option. Helping them could be a very big deal in MS care.

Swiss drug giant Roche, tapping into an unorthodox business model created by a San Francisco venture group, wants to find treatments to help. Roche and Versant Ventures have created the oddly named Inception 5—we’ll explain the name later—to house a promising new way to look for multiple sclerosis drugs, a high-throughput screen developed at the University of California, San Francisco.

Roche will contribute its vast libraries of compounds to test in the UCSF assay, and a seasoned team of drug discovery scientists in the employ of Versant’s Inception group will also try to design new compounds.

Repairing the neural insulation is called remyelination. Myelin is the substance that makes up the sheaths, and it’s also what the immune system mistakes for a pathogen. The attack leaves holes in the myelin, and like a house with faulty wiring, the patient’s nervous system starts to short-circuit, leading to a wide and unpredictable range of neurological symptoms.

While drug makers have produced improvements with drugs that tamp down the immune system’s attack, nothing is available to reverse the actual myelin damage. (Two monoclonal antibody therapies, one from Biogen Idec (NASDAQ: BIIB) of Cambridge, MA, and another from Acorda Therapeutics (NASDAQ: ACOR) of Ardsley, NY, are in the clinic.)

The UCSF assay, created by neurology professor Jonah Chan (pictured above), is an innovative way to get at a thorny problem: It’s really hard to build tests that demonstrate remyelination. Neurons, the cells that need to be remyelinated, are finicky to grow in the lab. Also a problem: oligodendrocytes, the cells that produce myelin, don’t wrap their myelin around the axons of neurons in an easily measurable way. (Axons are the branching arms of neurons that transmit electrical signals.)

There are other reasons, too, but Chan created a work-around: Build tiny silica cones that encourage oligodendrocytes to wrap their myelin cleanly. In other words, he built axons from pure glass. And when those silica cones (which Chan calls “micropillars”) are lined up in a testing plate, their cone shape allows measurement of the myelin thickness as it wraps around. Imagine reading the myelin as if it were the rings in the cross-section of a tree.

“Jonah’s done a great job,” said Jay Tung, chief research officer of the Myelin Repair Foundation in Saratoga, CA, which has worked with Chan in the past. “We are ecstatic about pharma, academics, startups, anyone moving the field forward. This is exactly what we want to see.”

“My view is that the missing link for finding candidate therapies for myelin repair has been the lack of a platform for efficient high-throughput screening of agents,” said Timothy Coetzee, chief research officer at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in New York. The nonprofit funded much of Chan’s work that went into the micropillars. “The complexities of co-culture systems just don’t lend themselves to HTS. Jonah’s technology fills that critical gap.”

With the screening platform, researchers can test how thousands of drugs spur oligodendrocytes to produce myelin. That’s exactly what Inception 5 plans to do.

The group is part of a Versant initiative to keep its own drug-discovery team in-house at a company called Inception Sciences, led by a group of scientists who, at the Merck-Frosst labs in Montreal, had a string of successes including the painkiller rofecoxib (Vioxx)—later withdrawn from the market for safety concerns—and the asthma drug montekulast (Singulair). One of those scientists, Peppi Prasit, and Versant teamed up to create Amira Pharmaceuticals, which they sold in 2011 for $475 million.

Versant Ventures' Brad Bolzon

Bolzon of Versant

Prasit and Versant managing director Brad Bolzon (right) immediately pivoted to launch Inception Sciences, which describes itself as a “small-molecule pharmaceutical incubator.” It is wholly owned by Versant and has two labs, one in San Diego, another in Vancouver. A third is about to open as well.

Instead of turning Inception Sciences into a sprawling biopharma, Versant uses a few million dollars at a time to fund Inception spin-offs that it partners with outside drug companies. (Hence the Inception 5 name; there are four other spinoffs, with more soon to be announced, according to Bolzon.) With Inception 5, Roche is paying for the research and has the option to buy the company outright once the Inception team files an IND, which is industry shorthand for asking the Food and Drug Administration permission to test a drug in humans.

Chan told Xconomy his work had drawn a lot of industry interest, but meeting the Inception scientists at … Next Page »

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  • Philip Daniels

    Another example of big pharma sucking people dry. In their ignorance and self centered attitude or just plain “It’s the money” they can’t or won’t lobby the gov’t for research on cannabis, but their money grubbing and research is over! because we already know, cannabis helps repair the Myelin … and you can take that, to the bank!

  • Lynne Heal

    NO MS drug ever cured MS and never ever will.To many pharmas make profits out of MSers even ones who have died. Too many promote the MS drugs one even had furniture polish added to it.Highly paid professionals involve din MS al make profits, shares and commissions on every MS drug its full of GREED AND CORRUPTIONS to the core

  • http://www.georgiabioed.org Melissa Nikolic

    Can a mathematical model be built to support this research, based on the silica axon and the behavior observed from the oligodendrocytes? This model could be used to test hypotheses prior to the bench. A computational challenge could be established and pushed out to mathematics and CS departments.

    Also, materials engineers are doing amazing work looking at scaffolding in biology, in order to do similar work as myelin sheath repair. This is another avenue to improve the silica axon application.