J&J Innovation launches a discovery pact with fledgling upstart Scholar Rock

Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) global hunt for new technologies has led it to a fledgling biotech working on a new approach to triggering an immune system attack, as well as stopping one. J&J is announcing this morning that it has struck a discovery deal with Scholar Rock, a Cambridge, MA-based biotech launched about a year ago by Polaris and Harvard's Dr. Timothy Springer, who's seeded the upstart with cash as well as his research on the role that growth factors play in disease.

J&J's newly formed innovation group has its eyes set on TGF-beta 1, a growth factor primarily known for its role in dulling an immune system assault. Together the partners will explore its uses for autoimmune diseases, stopping a destructive attack, as well as cancer--ramping up an attack on cancer cells.

For autoimmune diseases the discovery team will look at activating TGF-beta 1, says Scholar Rock CEO Nagesh Mahanthappa, while the cancer side will look at suppressing the growth factor. On the autoimmune side, he tells FierceBiotech, a new therapy could work alone, while on the cancer side there are more opportunities to create combination treatments.

Springer's work has zeroed in on how growth factors work in microenvironments that can be no wider than a few cell diameters, versus broadly circulating hormones. And they'll be developing antibodies that can both activate and deactivate the growth factor. None of the terms of the deal were revealed today, though J&J is providing research support to the company.

Scholar Rock only recently came out of stealth mode, announcing new board picks that includes Katrine Bosley, the former CEO of Avila, where Mahanthappa had run corporate development. The company is still working with seed cash, says the CEO, from both Polaris as well as Springer, a professor at Harvard Medical School as well as Children's Hospital Boston. More deals are in the works and Mahanthappa says he's also working on a substantial venture round. 

"We envision development of niche activators as a broad class of therapeutics with novel mechanisms of action," said Springer in a statement.

- here's the release