AC Immune will receive €27.6M (CHF 30M) from big pharma Eli Lilly as it begins a phase I trial of its first-in-class Alzheimer’s disease drug.
This is the first milestone payment in a deal worth up to €1.6B (CHF 1.7B), which Eli Lilly and AC Immune signed to develop drugs for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases in December last year.
AC Immune triggered the first milestone payment when it launched a phase I trial of the project’s lead Alzheimer’s drug in healthy volunteers in June. Under the agreement, AC Immune will finance the phase I stage of the Alzheimer’s drug, while Lilly will fund further clinical development.
While AC Immune specializes in developing immunotherapies for neurodegenerative disease, it is developing a different kind of treatment with Lilly. The partners are developing small molecule drugs that enter the brain and bind with abnormal proteins underlying these conditions. The most advanced drug in this collaboration is designed to stop the buildup of toxic forms of a protein called tau within neurons, which scientists believe might cause Alzheimer’s disease.
Despite decades of research, current treatments are unable to stop the progression of Alzheimer’s. Much of the research has focused on the protein amyloid-beta, whose buildup in the brain was thought to cause the condition. Unfortunately, many phase III failures have cast doubt on the amyloid-beta hypothesis. The most recent example was of Eisai and Biogen, which decided to discontinue phase III trials earlier this month after a preliminary safety review.
AC Immune has already been stung by failure. One of its antibody drugs, aimed at clearing amyloid-beta, was dropped in phase III by AC Immune’s partner Roche in January. Lilly’s interest in a drug targeting toxic tau protein instead of amyloid-beta reflects a general trend towards rethinking the approach to treating Alzheimer’s disease.
Other tactics are under development for beating Alzheimer’s disease. For example, a research group in Sweden has suggested vaccinating against viruses believed to be involved in the disease. The young UK biotech AstronauTx is developing drugs targeting dysfunctional support cells in the brain called astrocytes, while the Spanish company Oryzon Genetics is developing drugs that modify the way genes are expressed in neurons in a process called epigenetics.
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