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Déjà Vu? Elan Alumni Start Antibody Firm to Fight Neurodegeneration

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Former employees of Elan, the Irish-American drug company that grabbed plenty of headlines before it was broken into parts, have launched a company to develop monoclonal antibodies to treat neurodegenerative disease.

The company is Annexon Bioscience of Redwood City, CA, and it has $34 million in Series A backing from Novartis’s venture group and others. The Elan alums in question are Annexon CEO Doug Love, who was an executive vice president at Elan, and CSO Ted Yednock, who was head of research of Elan’s pharmaceutical group. They’re pushing their lead program first in Huntington’s disease, a deadly, inherited neurodegenerative condition that steadily erodes a person’s coordination and cognition.

There are no drugs approved to modify or cure the disease, only medicines to relieve the symptoms that include involuntary spastic body movements (called chorea), pneumonia, and dementia.

The news might feel familiar to followers of Bay Area biotech. It’s the second antibody company Elan alumni have launched in the past couple years. Before Elan disappeared entirely, it spun out its early R&D group into Prothena (NASDAQ: PRTA) with Dale Schenk at the helm.

Schenk is a key figure in the development of antibody immunotherapy, and his company Athena Neurosciences was the source of the Alzheimer’s treatment bapineuzumab that Elan acquired (along with Schenk) in 1996. Bapi, as it was known in shorthand, ultimately failed to reach the market after a high-profile Phase 3 failure.

At Prothena, Schenk is focusing on other diseases besides Alzheimer’s that stem from misfolded proteins. The company just began a Phase 3 trial for its top compound, aiming to treat AL amyloidosis, a rare hematological disorder. The FDA today granted the program “fast track” status, which could signficantly reduce its time to approval. Prothena has another antibody in the clinic to treat Parkinson’s disease.

Annexon CSO Yednock has his own bona fides as well. Also at Athena, he led the research in the 1990s that turned into the multiple sclerosis treatment natalizumab (Tysabri), which is now owned by Biogen Idec (NASDAQ: BIIB). Approved 10 years ago, Tysabri is linked to a rare brain infection that temporarily knocked it off the market.

Annexon is based on research into a protein called C1q. It’s meant to help our immune systems clear out dead cells and pathogens in what’s known as the classic complement cascade. But in the brain C1q can accumulate at the synapses—the junctions where neurons pass signals to one another. In some brains, it piles up and instead triggers an immune system overreaction that kills the synapses and causes neurodegeneration, according to work from Annexon cofounder and Stanford University neurobiologist Ben Barres and others. (The other Annexon cofounder is neuroscientist Arnon Rosenthal, who runs the startup Alector in San Francisco. He was previously a key figure at Rinat Neuroscience.)

Annexon’s lead drug AXN005 aims to block C1q and prevent the immune overreaction.

Novartis Venture Funds led the Series A round, which is not uncommon for the corporate venture group. Corporate pharma investors have played a larger role in recent years supporting early-stage R&D outside their walls. In 2012, Novartis led or co-led six biopharma Series A rounds. Satter Investment Management and Clarus Ventures also participated in Annexon’s Series A. The company received seed funding from Fidelity Biosciences, but that group did not join the new round.