Last month, European biotechs Ipsen and AC Immune announced multi-million euro deals to acquire or license treatments for Parkinson’s disease. For some experts, this increasing interest in the brain disease with the fastest growing prevalence is long overdue.
In July, Swiss company AC Immune bought assets and intellectual property for investigational Parkinson’s vaccines valued at nearly €50M from Austrian firm Affiris. AC immune will immediately begin a phase II clinical study involving an optimized formulation of the most advanced acquired vaccine candidate, which targets alpha-synuclein, a protein whose accumulation in the brain is linked to Parkinson’s.
In the same month, the UK-based Ipsen signed a deal potentially worth more than €300M for an exclusive, global license to a small molecule Parkinson’s drug from Swedish IRLAB. The drug, called mesdopetam, is being assessed in phase IIb trials to treat involuntary movements that can be a side effect from a common Parkinson’s disease treatment called levodopa. Ipsen is now taking on preparations for phase III investigational studies of the same drug.
Currently, there is no cure for Parkinson’s. Treatments such as physiotherapy, medication, and, in some cases, surgery are only able to alleviate symptoms and maintain quality of life. Levodopa is one of the main Parkinson’s treatments in use; it increases the levels of dopamine in the brain to address the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s.
With the recent deals from Ipsen and AC Immune, the biotech community is rising to the challenge with novel ways to tackle the disease.
Another younger player is the UK startup NRG Therapeutics, founded in 2018. The company investigates ways to protect the brain’s dopamine-producing cells from cell death, which has been implicated in the condition.
On top of €2.4M (£2M) of investment that NRG has gathered from the charity Parkinson’s UK, last month the startup received a €422,000 ($500,000) grant from the Michael J Fox Foundation to accelerate research into its investigational drug. The treatment targets a protein on the mitochondria’s inner membrane that is involved in the death of dopamine-producing cells.
“We’re excited by the promising molecules that have emerged, which hold real potential to create disease-modifying therapies for Parkinson’s,” said Arthur Roach, Director of Research at Parkinson’s UK. “Our next focus is working together to advance these molecules towards clinical trials.”
NRG Therapeutics is now seeking to raise around £20M in Series A funding, following its seed investment from Parkinson’s UK.
The field of Parkinson’s has been attracting deals throughout the year. Parkinson’s and epilepsy were the focus of Barcelona-based INBRAIN Neuroelectronics in March, when the firm announced €14M ($17M) in Series A funding. The company aims to develop brain implants based on graphene — an ultra-thin form of carbon — with the aim of treating symptoms by delivering precise electrical currents to the brain.
Yet the heightened interest in Parkinson’s treatments is long overdue and remains woefully insufficient, according to neurology professor Earl Ray Dorsey, Director of the Center for Health and Technology at the University of Rochester in Michigan, US.
“Parkinson’s disease is the world’s fastest-growing brain disease, even faster than Alzheimer’s. The number of individuals with the condition has more than doubled in the past 25 years and absent change will double it again in the coming generation,” Dorsey told me.
“Today, 200 Americans will be diagnosed with the condition, and another 100 will die from it.”
Dorsey, who has previously received funding from the Michael J Fox Foundation but has no links with NRG, said research is not only needed into treating individuals with Parkinson’s but also into the root causes of the disease.
Many of these likely have their origins in the industrial revolution, he said, including air pollution, certain pesticides such as paraquat and industrial chemicals such as trichloroethylene.
“If we address these likely causes, we can prevent millions from ever developing the disease.”
Cover image from Elena Resko