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their San Diego facility last year “hooked him.” Two people in particular, the medicinal chemist Brian Stearns and the biologist Daniel Lorrain, were “very impressive,” said Chan. “They’re so focused on developing products and new drugs. It made perfect sense.”
Chan also liked the idea of a third party like Inception between his work and Roche, which previously had asked him directly to screen their compounds in his lab. “That wasn’t appealing,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a service provider for companies.”
Instead, Chan and his students can get back to basic research and leave the screening work to others. “I’m just a lab rat,” he said. “It’s up to the drug hunters to take the next steps.”
Chan and his fellow UCSF neurology professor Ari Green, also an MD who treats multiple sclerosis patients, are among Inception 5’s founders and have an undisclosed equity stake. (Versant is the main owner, and Inception’s employees also take equity in each spinout.)
Even as the micropillar screen goes over to Inception 5, Green is overseeing a 50-person trial at UCSF with a drug he and Chan found with the screen. Like much of the work surrounding myelin repair, Green is taking a creative tack to measure the drug’s effect. The trial measures the speed at which light shone in a patient’s eye is converted into a signal in the brain. Myelin damage to the optic nerve slows that conversion. Patients whose speed improves during the trial might be experiencing myelin repair.
Data could be ready by the end of the year, but the trial isn’t meant to get a new drug on the market. They’re testing an off-patent, over-the-counter antihistamine, and its drowsy effect on patients rule out its potential as an MS drug. “Fatigue is the number-one issue for MS patients,” said Green. “But if this trial goes well, we’ll pursue funding for a large scale clinical trial, because even if it doesn’t lead to development of a therapeutic, it’ll help advance the field.”
It’s a field full of unknowns. As promising as Chan’s micropillars are, they’re synthetic. They only approximate how myelin would wrap around real axons, and they lack the complicating factor of inflammation in the micro-environment. Tung of the MRF says his group has an “intense focus” to move toward a high-throughput screen without using a synthetic material. Inception 5 will work on next-generation assays, too, says Green.
If Roche pulls the trigger and buys Inception 5, it will take the micropillar screen with it, which doesn’t sit well with Tim Coetzee of the NMSS. “If this platform technology got walled off from rest of the world, I’d be worried,” said Coetzee. “This is about MS, but we’re also starting to see defects in myelin in Alzheimer’s, ALS, and other diseases. It’s not as profound right now as MS, but there are other places this technology could have relevance.”
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