Drug Development

Alzheimer’s player gets $47M, a new name and a pair of marquee board members

After eight years working on the fringes of Alzheimer’s drug development, the group operating NeuroPhage has added a couple of high-profile biotech players in the Cambridge/Boston hub to the board, adopted a new name and completed a hefty $47 million Series E round aimed at gaining proof-of-concept data for a lead drug that will try to land a novel one-two punch against the disease.

The new name is Proclara Biosciences. The money comes from Mérieux Développement and a group of unidentified high-net worth individuals and the execs are Third Rock’s Dan Lynch, the former Imclone chief who is taking the executive chairman’s role at Proclara, while chief bluebird and Third Rock co-founder Nick Leschly also steps on to the board. Third Rock itself is not involved with this syndicate.

Leschly has made some pioneering gains on the gene therapy front at bluebird, while Lynch has helped shepherd a group of biotechs in Cambridge, ranging from bluebird and Nimbus to disappointing failures like Bind and Eleven.

They’ll be adding some visibility to a company which is setting out on a clinical journey that has already devoured billions of dollars at much bigger companies who so far have all failed to make a dent in a disease that steals the memories of millions of people around the world.

But, of course, that’s not news to any of them.

“Alzheimer’s is a graveyard of drug development,” says Proclara CEO Franz Hefti.

Hefti plans to steer clear of that graveyard by pursuing a lead molecule that tackles the misfolding proteins involved in Alzheimer’s as well as Parkinson’s. And the biotech is simultaneously targeting amyloid beta and tau with an upcoming Phase Ib study. A success in tracking the elimination of both tangles will set up a mid-stage study with cognition as the primary endpoint.

“We think this one-two punch will do the trick,” adds Hefti. Aducanumab (an early-stage Biogen drug that has attracted considerable attention) may work; we think our molecule will be better.”

Up until now, the R&D approach to Alzheimer’s has largely been divided between two camps, the amyloid beta crowd and a smaller group focused on tau — two toxic proteins that appear to kick in at different stages of disease development. Hefti’s crew is aiming at both with a single molecule.

By mid-2018 he hopes to produce proof of activity in a clinical trial for the lead drug, with a backup molecule in an IND.

Getting past Phase II and pointed to Phase III, a stage of R&D that requires big trials that can cost tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars, will also require the kind of pharma partner who can afford to foot the bill, says the CEO. That’s a steep climb, but Hefti has a long track record in biotech, with stints as CSO at Avid Radiopharmaceuticals (bought out by Eli Lilly) and EVP at Rinat.

He knows what he’s up against.

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