Silverstein-backed startup will test gene therapy for Parkinson's

Regenxbio has joined forces with investment firm OrbiMed and a new nonprofit foundation to create Prevail Therapeutics, a startup focused on new biologics and gene therapies for Parkinson's disease (PD).

Prevail will draw on the expertise of the Silverstein Foundation for Parkinson's with GBA, which concentrates on a particular form of the disease caused by mutations in the glucocerebrosidase gene.

The foundation was set up this year by OrbiMed's co-head of private equity Jonathan Silverstein, who was diagnosed with GBA-linked PD in February and is mobilizing efforts to discover a cure for the disease. Silverstein backed the foundation with $10 million of his own money, and is intent on accelerating research into PD with GBA as well as other forms of the disease.

Prevail says it will focus initially on research coming out of the lab of its co-founder and CEO Asa Abeliovich, M.D., Ph.D., who is on the faculty of Columbia University as well as being a scientific adviser to the Silverstein Foundation and co-founder of neurodegenerative disease biotech Alector.

By joining forces with Regenxbio, Prevail launches with an exclusive license to the gene therapy specialist's adeno-associated virus (AAV) based vector technology NAV AAV9 for PD and other neurodegenerative disorders.

Silverstein said that the NAV platform and Dr. Abeliovich's "deep expertise in the molecular mechanisms of neurodegeneration … provides us with a promising opportunity to develop potential life-changing therapies for patients suffering from Parkinson's disease and other neurodegenerative diseases."

He told CNBC today that Prevail's board will also have some big names, including Leonard Bell, co-founder and former CEO of Alexion, OrbiMed venture partner and Alexion co-founder Steve Squinto and serial entrepreneur Peter Thompson of Silverback Therapeutics and Corvus Pharmaceuticals.

The new company will initially focus on GBA1, the most common of the PD mutations, which is estimated to be present in up to 10% of U.S. PD patients and perhaps 100,000 people worldwide. The disease mechanism linked to the mutation—an accumulation of alpha-synuclein in the brain—may have implications for the broader PD population and other neurodegenerative diseases.

"Many of the drugs we are trying for Parkinson's with GBA may work in the broader Parkinson's population," said Silverstein. The aim will be to get drugs approved for use in GBA patients first, and then expand their use into other patient groups.

The work of the foundation is attracting investment from companies who are not even active in PD, with cancer specialist Celgene today pledging a grant of $5 million.