Roche partners up in effort to discover new multiple sclerosis treatments

Versant and Inception, along with Roche, will form a new company dedicated to R&D around novel small-molecule remyelinating therapies for patients with multiple sclerosis

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BASEL, Switzerland—Roche announced June 23 that it has entered into an exclusive partnership with Inception Sciences Inc. and Versant Ventures to create Inception 5, a new company dedicated to the research and development of novel small-molecule remyelinating therapies for patients with multiple sclerosis.
The collaborators’ focus will be to screen and develop therapies for promoting the remyelination of nerve sheaths damaged as a result of multiple sclerosis disease progression and, to this end, Inception 5 will build on recent discoveries in the field and a proprietary remyelination screening platform developed by investigators at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). The company will pursue multiple molecular targets for remyelination that have already been identified.
As part of this work, Roche will contribute its extensive compound libraries for testing with the UCSF assay. At the same time, drug discovery researchers employed by Versant’s Inception group will work to design new compounds.
As noted in an article about the deal, designing tests that can demonstrate remyelination is a huge challenge because of the difficulty of growing neurons in the lab and the fact that “oligodendrocytes, the cells that produce myelin, don’t wrap their myelin around the axons of neurons in an easily measurable way.” The UCSF research team designed tiny cones from silica as a way to circumvent this problem and allow oligodendrocytes “to wrap their myelin cleanly.”
“With Inception 5, we look forward to further unraveling the biological basis of nerve myelination and target-repair mechanisms in multiple sclerosis,” said Luca Santarelli, global head of neuroscience at Roche Pharmaceutical Research and Early Development. “To tap into an area that has recently seen significant advances, we will partner with world-class scientists, entrepreneurs and investors in the context of our newly established model for externalized drug discovery.”
Versant will provide equity financing to the company and Roche will fund the research based on a series of milestones. Roche retains an exclusive option to acquire Inception 5 upon a first lead compound reaching the filing stage of an Investigational New Drug application.
 “This deal represents the second build-to-buy newco we have jointly created with Versant Ventures and drug hunters at Inception Sciences,” added Shafique Virani, global head of neuroscience partnering at Roche. “The unique deal construct lends itself well to exploring exciting, groundbreaking new science and jointly de-risking early-stage research with Versant/Inception.”
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune-mediated disease of the central nervous system (CNS) and is one of the leading causes of neurological disability in young adults. The immune system incorrectly attacks healthy nerve tissue in the CNS, which affects the transfer of electrical signals from the CNS to the body. The development and course of symptoms is unpredictable and varies between patients. Some patients may experience muscle weakness, poor balance or coordination and tremors as well as altered sensation, memory and concentration problems. Over time, the natural course leads to permanent disability in most patients.
Roche is known for its expertise in oncology therapies, and some market-watchers see this deal as a deliberate attempt to diversify beyond that area, with neurodegenerative and central nervous system disorders a high priority, among them Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis.
As Roche notes, with 12 investigational medicines in clinical development, neuroscience is a currently a major focus of research and development at Roche, and a therapeutic antibody, ocrelizumab—which selectively targets CD20+ B cells, a type of immune cell believed to contribute to nerve damage in people with multiple sclerosis—is currently being investigated in a Phase 3 clinical program.

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