Pfizer vet Travis Wager takes R&D reins at Aquinnah

Wager's move comes after Pfizer announced it would cut about 300 jobs and some earlier-stage projects in its neuroscience unit. (Anja Osenberg)

Neuro biotech Aquinnah Pharmaceuticals has a new vice president of research: Travis Wager, Ph.D., who wore various hats during his 20-year tenure at Pfizer. Wager will head up Aquinnah's discovery efforts for treatments targeting neurodegenerative diseases, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Alzheimer's disease.

Wager has led small molecule design and served as a project leader for Pfizer's neuroscience and pain research unit. In addition to developing compounds targeting Alzheimer's disease, he also worked on assets to treat schizophrenia, ADHD, narcolepsy and allergic rhinitis, Aquinnah said in a statement. His move from Big Pharma to biotech comes after Pfizer announced it would back out of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's in January, with plans to cut about 300 jobs and some earlier-stage projects from its neuro pipeline.

Later that month, the Big Pharma specified it was dropping eight projects in total, predominately phase 1 tests in Alzheimer’s, but also a midstage Parkinson’s drug, and a phase 2 drug for epilepsy.

"We are very excited to welcome Travis to our growing team," said Aquinnah CEO Glenn Larsen, Ph.D. "His leadership and experience at Pfizer, where he helped advance eight neuroscience programs to clinical development, and his deep and extensive research and development experience will be invaluable as we advance our therapeutic programs targeting stress granules in both ALS, tau biology in Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases."

Aquinnah is taking aim at a pathway that links persistent stress granules to neurodegenerative disease. Stress granules are part of a cellular repair response when the body encounters stress, such as an injury, says Ben Wolozin, Aquinnah's chief scientific officer. They form when RNA binding proteins flow out of the nucleus into the cytoplasm and bind up specialized RNA and proteins, leaving free other RNA and proteins designed to repair damage.

Stress granules usually disperse once the cell's enzymes have repaired the damage. But some people may have a mutation that makes these aggregations "stickier," causing them to accumulate and become "persistent." Where they build up determines a person's symptoms, the company says: "Accumulation in the spinal cord results in motor dysfunction and ALS, while accumulation in the hippocampus causes memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease."

Aquinnah is trying to make it in a field that has not seen any real R&D advance in 15 years. In 2018 alone, vTv Therapeutics' azeliragon flunked a late-stage study in mild Alzheimer's, and Alzheon, which filed in March to pull in up to $81 million in its IPO, called it off a month later. And the previous fall, Eisai and Biogen's BAN2401 did not meet the mark in an early readout, and Axovant's intepirdine flopped in a phased 3 trial in mild to moderate Alzheimer's.

Pfizer's retreat from the difficult space has not fazed Wager.

"I look forward to leading the research and development team at Aquinnah and advancing our first-in-class medicines to accomplish Aquinnah's mission to provide life-changing impact for patients around the world," he said.