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9 April 2018

Big deal: Roche derives MS treatment

Versant's unusual build-to-buy model has resulted in Roche acquiring a target for MS based on UCSF research and the venture firm launching a new spinout, Pipeline Therapeutics.

Author: Thierry Heles, editor

There are a variety of routes for academic research to make its way onto the market – through spinouts, through a corporate purchasing a licence to existing research or through a company partnering a university with a view of developing a specific technology, product or service.

Pharmaceutical firm Roche has followed none of these direct paths. Instead, the company partnered Inception Sciences, the drug discovery engine of venture firm Versant Ventures, in 2014 on one of its programs, dubbed Inception 5, to find a treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS) based on research originating at University of California San Francisco.

MS is, like so many other debilitating diseases, in desperate need of a treatment. The condition affects the brain and the spinal cord, and its symptoms are many – they can include impairment of a patient’s vision, arm or leg movement, sensation and balance. The disease leads to lifelong suffering and often causes serious disability.

Inception 5, while an unusual way for university research to be commercialised, was not the first such agreement. In fact, Roche had already partnered Versant on Inception 3 in 2012 for a treatment for hearing impairment, translating research undertaken at Stanford University. However, Inception 5 is the first of the two deals to bear fruit.

Versant has other such agreements in the pipeline. Inception 1 is a partnership with pharmaceutical firm Shire to find a therapy for fibrosis, while Inception 4 is looking into treatments for eye diseases in collaboration with healthcare group Bayer. Inception IBD, a joint venture with pharmaceutical company Celgene, is pursuing therapeutics for irritable bowel disease.

Inception 2, a program focused on identifying cancer treatments, has not so far secured a corporate partner.

Roche’s agreement with Versant for Inception 5 revolved around the right to acquire the program once it filed its investigational new drug (IND) application with US regulator Federal Drug Administration. IND is a legal exemption for drug developers to ship medication across state lines, a process that would otherwise require an approved marketing application, granted only after all necessary clinical trials have been successfully completed.

Inception 5’s approach is a regenerative treatment that aims to promote remyelination, the process of stimulating the formation of a fatty substance called myelin around nerve fibres. Myelin acts as an electrically insulating layer and is essential to proper functioning of the central nervous system. MS damages the myelin, impairing the conduction of electrical signals.

Financial terms of the acquisition have not been disclosed, and while Versant confirmed it previously provided equity financing to the project and Roche supplied research funding, detailed figures could not be ascertained. Neither are the two yet disclosing the specific molecular target identified by the Inception 5 team.

Peppi Prasit, CEO of Inception Sciences, said: “Our Inception scientists once again demonstrated their ability to effectively translate foundational academic discoveries into high-quality drug candidates. This achievement resulted from access to cutting-edge academic research, a proven team of drug hunters with domain expertise, and support from our venture capital and pharma partners.”

The purchase of Inception 5 may seem like this particular success story is coming to an end for Versant, but actually, this is where the story becomes more interesting – the firm has established a spinout called Pipeline Therapeutics that will continue Inception 5’s work and build an expanded drug discovery platform for neuroregenerative therapies.

The spinout will be led by the same operating team and a broadened network of academic founders. It will be headed by Clare Ozawa, managing director of Versant, as chief executive, with Brian Stearns, former vice-president of chemistry at Inception Sciences, taking over the position of chief operating officer and Daniel Lorrain, vice-president of biology at Inception, becoming chief scientific officer.

Stearns said: “We are very excited to announce the creation of Pipeline Therapeutics and look forward to pursuing other therapeutic approaches that can promote functional recovery in neurological diseases.”

Versant has put in an undisclosed amount of equity funding and Pipeline is expected to raise external capital by 2019, when it will also seek industry partnerships.

Ozawa said: “Based on the continued progress in the field, we are now positioned to pursue drug candidates that invoke the natural repair processes in several nervous system cell types. We aim to create the leading company in the field and to build a portfolio of therapies for several neurodegenerative disorders that currently lack effective treatments.”

Inception 5’s achievement stands as a beacon to universities seeking to find different ways to get discoveries from lab to market. It bodes well for other similarly novel approaches such as Lab282 and Lab150, two partnerships inked by drug discovery company Evotec with University of Oxford and commercialisation firm Mars Innovation respectively, that aim to accelerate research to preclinical proof-of-concept and generate spinouts.

Deerfield Management, too, has recently launched two interesting models, first joining forces with Johns Hopkins University to create a $65m therapeutics-focused commercialisation fund in November 2017 before establishing another such program with Vanderbilt University last month.

And with Versant having five more Inception programs in its pipeline, including one working on Stanford research with Roche, it looks like that model is here to stay beyond its first success too.

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