Collaboration the key to success for BioArctic

BioArctic Neuroscience is developing a drug against Alzheimer’s disease. A large clinical phase II trial with up to 800 patients is in progress. A research collaboration with Eisai, a world leading pharma company, has paved the way for success.

”The road from a genetic discovery to a drug is very long,” says Pär Gellerfors, one of the founders of BioArctic and the company’s first CEO. “We are very proud to have taken our first drug all the way to testing in patients, but it has taken fifteen years of hard work.”

BioArctic’s Alzheimer drug is based on discoveries made by Professor Lars Lannfelt at Uppsala University. In the early 1990s he first discovered a unique genetic mutation that proved to cause hereditary Alzheimer’s disease. Later he made a new discovery, the so-called “Arctic mutation” relating to a special form of the protein β-amyloid that plays a crucial part in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. This opened up the possibility to develop an antibody-based treatment directed against the aggregated and toxic form of the protein. To commercialize this finding Lars Lannfelt and Pär Gellerfors founded BioArctic Neurosciences AB in 2003.

"UU Holding contributed seed capital and not least patent counselling, which was of great value to BioArctic, but venture capitalists were hard to attract."

Crucial strategic decision

But the years following the big IT crash at the turn of the millennium were tough for companies looking for investment capital. UU Holding contributed seed capital and not least patent counselling, which was of great value to BioArctic, but venture capitalists were hard to attract.

“So we made a crucial strategic decision,” says Pär. “Instead of courting venture capitalists we decided to look for collaboration with an established pharma company. This proved to be a stroke of fortune.”

The company at the top of the wish list was Japanese Eisai, which already had the leading Alzheimer drug, Aricept, on the market. Pär Gellerfors had previously worked with growth hormones in the Japanese market for Pharmacia, and his experiences and contacts in Japan enabled him to get Eisai interested in the new Swedish project. The first deal between BioArctic and Eisai was signed in 2003 and it would be followed by a number of research and licensing agreements concerning Alzheimer drugs, the first substance called BAN 2401 as well as a second generation drug, biomarkers and diagnostic tools.

“The agreements with Eisai gave us a positive cash flow long before the launch of product in the market. This is quite unique and has enabled us to develop the company and also to invest in new projects,” Pär says.

Into new areas

BioArctic is now also working in two other related areas. One is drugs against Parkinson’s disease, also based on research by Lars Lannfelt’s group in Uppsala. The academic research is conducted by Martin Ingelsson and co-workers.

Professor Lars Lannfelt, already in the early 1990s he discovered a unique genetic
mutation that proved to cause hereditary Alzheimer’s diseas.

 “Parkinson’s disease has many similarities to Alzheimer’s. Also in this disease a specific protein causes degeneration in the brain, and proteins can be attacked by antibodies. We have developed methods to synthesize the toxic form of the protein and produce antibodies against it. We have received financial support from Vinnova and we hope to be able to start clinical trials with a new drug against Parkinson’s within a few years.”

The other new area is the treatment of spinal cord injuries. Based on research by Professor Lars Olson at Karolinska Institutet a method has been developed to help injured nerves in the spinal cord grow across the injured zone and create new contact below the injury. A special device made of a biodegradable material is surgically inserted to guide the nerve growth, at the same time as this process is stimulated by a recombinant growth factor.

The vision is to open specialist clinics offering surgery for patients who have lost their sensory and locomotive abilities in the lower part of the body after severe spinal cord trauma. As this treatment comprises a surgical procedure and following rehabilitation it differs considerably from treating Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and a separate company, Spinal Medical AB, has recently been created to bring the product to the market.

Several collaborations

The collaboration with Eisai has been the key to success for BioArctic. The company also enlists the services of other partners, for example for the humanization and production of the antibodies.

“It’s absolutely necessary to utilize the resources and specialist competences of other companies for important parts of the development work. Collaborations can be both easy and hard, though. And you may have to face difficult decisions, as when one of our partners was bought by a big pharma company that cancelled the agreement with us. Then you must have the experience and resourcefulness to quickly make the right decision. As an entrepreneur you must always be able to find solutions,” says Pär.

Today BioArctic has 25 employees and modern facilities in Stockholm. The ongoing phase II trials with BAN 2401 have passed the halfway mark and Pär Gellerfors is hopeful about the future.

“We will not have the results until early next year, but we are very optimistic. We are convinced that our treatment hypothesis is sound and hopefully we will be able to offer Alzheimer patients a new effective drug in a few years’ time.”

Ewa Björling, Minister ofTrade, inagurates BioArtic's new facilities in Stockhom, April 28 2014. Photo: Johan Sjödahl

Writer: Thomas Nordanberg