Ex-Elan Trio Grabs Their Former Employer’s Kinase Inhibitor Program

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Elan lives on. No, former CEO Kelly Martin isn’t swooping back in his infamous corporate jet. Elan was a high-profile Irish-American biotech that created the multiple sclerosis treatment natalizumab (Tysabri), developed the promising but unsuccessful Alzheimer’s treatment bapineuzumab, and built a billion-dollar drug-delivery business.

But a long boil of shareholder discontent over management practices (the jet was but one sticking point) sealed its fate, and Elan was ultimately broken up. The final pieces went late last year to diversified health firm Perrigo.

Now a trio of former Elan employees are betting the disgruntled shareholders’ charges—that Elan’s assets would be more valuable once separated from the old regime—also apply to an under-the-radar part of their former employer’s portfolio: kinase inhibitors, not exactly what Elan was known for.

In a deal announced Monday, Imago Pharmaceuticals is taking possession of Elan’s small molecule library and programs. The name Imago is a reference to the final, adult stage of a metamorphosing insect, but other details remain a mystery. The company isn’t saying how much it has paid Perrigo, nor will it discuss its own funding or backers.

With its three founders dispersed around the U.S., the virtual firm doesn’t really have a home base. But the main research that it’s formed around was conducted in Elan’s South San Francisco, CA, labs.

Imago co-founder Irene Griswold-Prenner led the Elan research into c-Jun N-terminal kinase, or JNK, inhibitors, and now she’s got them again. Kinase inhibitors have become one of the most pursued types of drugs the past decade, with more than a dozen approved in the U.S. since 2000. (There are roughly 500 kinases—enzymes that regulate a wide range of cellular activity—and their dysfunction often drives disease.)

JNK is no secret, but no one has made much progress with a JNK inhibitor. Celgene touts its “major JNK drug discovery and development program,” but it has hit roadblocks. Its first clinical candidate completed a Phase 1 trial but didn’t advance because Celgene wanted to push a second-generation candidate, tanzisertib. It reached Phase 2 but was scrapped in 2012 for safety reasons.

Will the former Elan assets fare any better? Griswold-Prenner says they have extremely high specificity, which means they aren’t as likely to cause mischief in the wrong places. She won’t say how much Imago is paying, or how it has raised the money. “I believe we can get this going and get the critical information we need quickly with the funding that we have,” she says.

She’ll be based in Jackson Hole, WY, for the next year, simply because she can; she was a top scientist at iPierian, which was bought earlier this year by Bristol-Myers Squibb. Her co-founders are Karen Chen, the CSO and COO of the Spinal Muscular Atrophy Foundation in New York, and Diana DeVore, a biotech patent lawyer at Alexandria, VA, firm Oblon Spivak.

If Imago can make headway on JNK inhibitors, it would mark another Elan program that lives on. The multiple sclerosis drug natalizumab has become a major source of revenue for Biogen Idec, second only behind the MS flagship drug interferon beta-1a (Avonex). Biogen Idec was the development partner and bought out Elan’s share of the rights in April 2013.

While bapineuzumab failed in Phase 3 trials to help people with Alzheimer’s disease—and cost Elan, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars—its inventor Dale Schenk spun out Elan’s early-stage antibody work into Prothena in late 2012.

The rest of Elan went to Perrigo, which mainly wanted the natalizumab royalty stream and the tax break of Elan’s Irish corporate domicile.