Woodford invests in Big Pharma-backed dementia fund

Neil Woodford
Neil Woodford

Neil Woodford has invested in the Big Pharma-backed Dementia Discovery Fund. The investment gives the DDF its first financial investor and as much as £15 million ($19 million) more to funnel into the discovery and development of drugs to treat Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Woodford’s investment brings the total raised by the DDF to date up toward £100 million, the Financial Times reports. The goal is to grow the amount the DDF invests over its first five years up toward £230 million. Over its projected 15-year life, the SV Life Sciences-managed fund plans to invest in 40 projects and biotechs with a view to getting three to five drugs into the clinic.

To achieve its near and longer-term financing goals, the DDF wants to bring other financial backers on board to join the mix of Big Pharma companies, nonprofits and government departments that got it started. That will present a different challenge to the team running the fund.

The U.K. government got the fund started by cajoling Biogen, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Takeda and Otsuka-subsidiary Astex to contribute what by their standards are trivial amounts of money. Local nonprofit Alzheimer’s Research UK and the government’s own Department of Health put in cash, too.

Financial returns are lower down the list of priorities for these initial backers than they are for Woodford and his ilk. But, despite Alzheimer’s R&D being the ultimate money pit, the DDF thinks it can attract those seeking to profit financially from their involvement.

“This is intended both to be philanthropic and to make money for investors,” SV’s Kate Bingham told the FT.

SV won the right to manage the fund in a competitive process in 2015. Since then, the VC shop has lured Tetsu Maruyama from Takeda and Laurence Barker from GlaxoSmithKline to run the fund. Barker and Maruyama have overseen investments in five startups and funding of four translational programs.

The focus of the research supported by the DDF is far removed from the ideas that have dominated Alzheimer's programs in years gone by. Amyloid is out. Modulators of immune cells and drugs targeting voltage-gated ion channels are in.

The projects are in the early stages of R&D. The DDF’s goal is to help them get into the clinic before offloading responsibility for further development to a biopharma partner, freeing it of the cost and risk of later-phase development.