Houston—Alzeca, which is developing an imaging agent to help doctors detect Alzheimer’s disease at its earliest stages, announced Thursday it has raised $11 million in a Series A round of funding.
The Houston-based company has developed an imaging agent that it says can, when used with an MRI, detect the presence of abnormal brain proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other causes of dementia, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In particular, Alzeca is targeting amyloid plaques, proteins that typically accumulate in the brain years before significant cognitive symptoms appear in Alzheimer’s patients.
The funding round was led by the Werth Group and included participation from Dolby Family Ventures and other new and earlier private investors. Carlo Medici, Alzeca’s CEO, says the money will be used to fund Alzeca’s operations through current toxicology studies on animals and the filing of the formal paperwork with the FDA to get the green light to test the technology in human trials.
Amyloid can be difficult to detect at the early stages of Alzheimer’s. But Alzeca aims to make it easier to spot by using a nanoparticle technology it calls ADx. Medici says its nanoparticle carries a ligand that binds to the amyloid in the brain and a second ligand that serves as a “dye” that exposes the amyloid during an MRI. Medici says using an MRI has advantages compared to a PET scan, which is used in technologies such as Eli Lilly’s Amyvid (NYSE: LLY)), and GE Healthcare’s Vizamyl (NYSE: GE).
MRIs, he says, are safer than PET scans, which exposes a patient to radiation equivalent to at least 40 X-rays, and they are about one-sixth the cost of a PET scan.
Alzeca is one of a number of companies seeking better ways to detect and treat Alzheimer’s disease. There is no cure for the condition, which slowly takes away a person’s cognitive abilities, and healthcare providers don’t really know what causes it.
But scientists have theorized that the buildup of brain proteins, such as amyloid plaques and tangles of tau, play a role in the disease. While everyone develops these proteins in their brains as they age, scientists have found that those with Alzheimer’s tend to have more of them, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Medici says he still believes in the promise of targeting amyloids, even as Eli Lilly announced last November that its Alzheimer’s drug solanezumab failed to significantly improve the condition of people with a mild form of the disease. As my colleague Ben Fidler wrote then, some biotech observers saw that as the final blow for the drug. But Medici sees the drug’s demise as a failure to test drug in the right patients.
“They enrolled patients that did not have amyloid plaques,” Medici says. “Thirty percent of the patients did not have amyloid.”
Cambridge, MA-based Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB) is also developing an amyloid drug, aducanumab, which has some encouraging early data, Fidler reported, adding that experts are waiting for results from a much larger Phase 3 study.
That’s the sort of news that gives Medici more confidence in Alzeca’s strategy. “I’m confident that our technology and a disease-modifying therapy like Biogen’s is a combination that is so powerful,” he says. “By the time this agent is approved by the FDA, there will be a disease-modifying drug, whether it’s Biogen’s or another.”
Alzeca was founded in 2011 based on research by Ananth Annapragada and Jason Eriksen at Texas Children’s Hospital and the University of Houston, respectively. The company has received grants from the National Institutes of Health, Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, the Alzheimer’s Association, and the Alliance for NanoHealth, according to its website. Medici, formerly CEO of Bracco Diagnostics in Princeton, NJ, became CEO last year.
In any case, Medici says he is motivated by potentially being able to provide some kind of early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. “There are plenty of things you can do in terms of family planning if you know,” he says.