Roche deal with Versant yields MS program, and a spin-out

Almost four years after Roche got together with Versant’s incubation unit Inception Sciences to go in search of new drugs to repair the damaged nerve sheaths in multiple sclerosis, the alliance has produced its first fruit.

Roche is taking over one of the programs set up under the collaboration to develop small-molecule drugs that can promote remyelination of nerve fibers damaged in MS. It’s not divulging much about the program (called Inception 5), including its molecular target, but says it is just about ready to start clinical trials.

At the same time, Versant says it is launching a San Diego-based spin-out company, Pipeline Therapeutics, to continue that work in MS and “build an expanded platform to identify the next generation of neuro-regenerative therapies.”

Roche isn’t involved in the new company, which will be solely backed by Versant with a $25 million startup fund, with Inception 5 team members Brian Stearns and Daniel Lorrain heading up Pipeline’s R&D push. Stearns was formerly Inception’s VP of chemistry and takes the chief operating officer role at Pipeline, while Lorrain—VP of biology at Inception—takes the chief scientific officer role. Versant’s managing director Clare Ozawa will serve as Pipeline’s CEO for the time being.  

Under the original agreement, Roche provided R&D funding with Versant backing the project with equity financing, continuing a model the two organizations first deployed a hearing loss program based on technology from Stanford University in 2012.

The new announcement is an endorsement of the risk-sharing approach, which gives Roche a chance to tap into promising new research without having to shell out a lot of cash, while the VC incubator gets an opportunity to turn R&D expertise into quick profits for investors.

The Inception 5 MS projects grew out of discoveries made at the University of California, San Francisco, and are part of a drive by medical researchers to find ways to not only prevent nerve deterioration in MS but also to potentially reverse the process. Other companies looking at remyelination include Acorda and Biogen, although the latter’s anti-LINGO drug opicinumab candidate had mixed results in phase 2b trials.

“Our Inception scientists once again demonstrated their ability to effectively translate foundational academic discoveries into high-quality drug candidates,” said Peppi Prasit, CEO of Inception.

“This achievement resulted from access to cutting-edge academic research, a proven team of drug hunters with domain expertise, and support from our venture capital and pharma partners,” he added.