Biogen gambles on a $17M Atlas biotech launch, buyout option in hand

Biogen Idec is partnering with Atlas Venture on a biotech launch, with the Big Biotech investing in the company, helping on R&D and taking an option to scoop up the entire package at the end of Phase I.

Biogen Idec ($BIIB) stepped in to help fund the $17 million A round for Atlas Venture's Ataxion, with venture partner Joshua Resnick in the role of founding CEO of the biotech. The single-project developer has its sights set on a new therapy for a range of orphan hereditary ataxias responsible for scrambling the cerebellum, which in turn triggers motor coordination issues which interfere with walking, speaking and a host of simple daily tasks. It's a good fit for Biogen, which has a big stake in neurodegenerative diseases.

Provided the preclinical work and Phase I study go according to plans and prayers, Biogen Idec has the option to buy out the company for a prearranged--and undisclosed--set of milestones and an upfront. In this case, Atlas is taking a drug it found at the Danish biotechnology company Aniona, recently renamed Saniona, and assuming much of the early–stage risk. And Atlas has a deal in hand if they chose the right program.   

Resnick tells FierceBiotech that Saniona was a spinout of NeuroSearch, taking ion channel research work out of the mother company well ahead of NeuroSearch's recent bankruptcy. Atlas initially found and seeded the project before bringing in Biogen Idec on the launch.

"Maybe we alter the trajectory of the disease," says Resnick about the new therapeutic work. "It may improve longevity." He adds that any drug that can delay a disease that forces patients into wheelchairs, with all the attendant health problems that can trigger, would be welcomed by a patient group that currently has no approved therapy to look to.  

There are other programs in the pipeline. Third Rock recently started Voyager Therapeutics, a gene therapy company focused on Friedreich's ataxia, a particular niche in this space. BioMarin ($BMRN) has been making some moves and ViroPharma, recently bought out by Shire ($SHHPG), has also focused on Friedreich's ataxia. Just today Edison Pharmaceuticals announced that the FDA put its lead drug for Friedreich's ataxia, EPI-743, on the regulatory fast track. But Resnick emphasizes that Ataxion will go after a range of ataxias, rather than a niche group like Friedreich's.

This deal in some ways mimics Atlas Venture's work with Arteaus, a biotech funded with cash from Atlas and OrbiMed which took an Eli Lilly ($LLY) program--the anti-CGRP antibody LY2951742--and pushed it through proof-of-concept work as one of the initial projects undertaken by the Atlas Venture Development Corp. under David Grayzel. Lilly recently licensed the drug back, registering a $57 million charge for the deal and giving the investors a solid, and relatively quick, payback for their work. These kinds of lean-and-mean, short term biotech launches have become popular in venture circles, with groups like Index Ventures and Avalon Ventures coming up with iterations of the same basic model.

Martin Jefson, the former head of neuroscience research at Pfizer ($PFE), was named CSO, a role he will share with his duties as CSO of another Atlas startup dubbed Rodin Therapeutics, which launched last summer to pursue work on epigenetics.

Kevin Koch, Biogen Idec's senior vice president of R&D, will join the board along with Grayzel, Claus Braestrup, former CEO of Lundbeck Pharmaceuticals and chairman of Saniona, and others.     

"Ataxion's early research in the area of ataxias is compelling, and we look forward to working with them as this research progresses," says Steven Holtzman, executive vice president of Corporate Development at Biogen Idec.

- here's the press release

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