A new biotech company, Magnolia Neurosciences, is launching with $31 million from investors to develop potential therapies for nervous system disorders based on discoveries at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Magnolia, which is based in New York, was co-founded by Seattle-based life sciences investment firm Accelerator Life Science Partners and MD Anderson in Houston. The startup will mine the discoveries made by scientists at MD Anderson’s Therapeutics Discovery division, including its Neurodegeneration Consortium and its Institute for Applied Cancer Science, or IACS. Investors in the round are AbbVie Ventures, Alexandria Venture Investments, Arch Venture Partners, Eli Lilly, among others.
Accelerator, which announced its launch of Magnolia on Monday, isn’t yet saying what the startup’s primary disease target might be. Among neurogenerative disorders, common areas of focus in therapeutics are Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
“We’re letting the science guide us on this,” says David Schubert, Accelerator’s president and CBO. The principal investigator (PI) at Magnolia has done an extensive amount of work in Alzheimer’s disease, he says, and this attracted Accelerator to the project. “But the PI also has ongoing grant relationships in other disorders.”
Jim Ray, director of the Neurodegeneration Consortium at MD Anderson, and Phil Jones, vice president of therapeutics discovery and head of drug discovery at IACS, are the principal investigators.
Magnolia hopes to develop therapies to treat neurodegenerative diseases and neuronal injury that affect nearly 20 million individuals in the United States alone, a number that is expected to increase as the population ages, according to Accelerator’s press release on Magnolia’s debut.
Magnolia and MD Anderson are focusing on a process called programmed cell death in which excess neurons are eliminated during embryonic development. Research shows that the nerve-pruning process becomes re-activated in critical brain regions when patients are afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological diseases.
“At first, we think, this excessive activation causes the synapses in the brain to falter, then they begin to retract, and then the long, thin connections between brain cells, the axions, slowly disintegrate over a period of months to years,” Ray wrote in an e-mail to Xconomy. “Our hypothesis is that if we block this from happening, it won’t cure the disease, but it will make the brain resistant to it, slowing [disease] progression and preserving function.”
Animal studies conducted by Magnolia indicate that drugs enabling the blocking to take effect can lead to enhanced memory, and improve or maintain neurological function, Ray says. The next hurdle, of course, is to see similar results in clinical trials, the timing of which, Ray said, is still under discussion.
The road has been rocky for pharmaceutical companies seeking to develop therapies to combat neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Xconomy’s biotech writer Frank Vinluan wrote in March about a series of failures by pharmaceutical companies in developing treatments for these diseases.
These include Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY) which tried to treat Alzheimer’s with an amyloid-blocking drug, solanezumab, but had to stop work on it in 2016 following the failure of the experimental drug in a Phase 3 clinical trial. A drug from Denmark-based Lundbeck failed in a late-stage study a little more than a year ago. Last September, a similar pill from Axovant Sciences (NASDAQ: AXON) failed in a Phase 3 trial.