J&J partners with a biotech startup on a new approach to Alzheimer's

A little biotech startup with an impressive lineup of biotech veterans among its backers has won over pharma giant Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) as an early partner on its plan to develop a new drug for Alzheimer's, currently one of the toughest targets in the drug business.

The drug hunters at the J&J Innovation Center in San Francisco have choreographed a pact with Alector, which was begun by two scientists with deep roots in the Alzheimer's drug field and backed by the antibody development experts at Tillman Gerngross's Adimab. The Big Pharma company will fund research into one of the biotech's targets, retaining an option on the drug through proof-of-concept disease model work with rights to negotiate an agreement if it still looks promising at the end of the early-stage exploration work.

None of the financials of the deal, or the specific target in mind, were revealed.

Last fall Polaris and OrbiMed staked Rinat founder Arnon Rosenthal and Columbia University associate professor Asa Abeliovich with a $10 million round to launch the company, which has been based at Janssen's QB3 incubator in the Bay Area. Gerngross and his right-hand man at Adimab, COO Errik Anderson, were part of the startup team, contributing Adimab's antibody know-how to the venture.

The deal underscores J&J's plan to scout out more early-stage deals from biotechs and academia, a project close to the heart of R&D chief Paul Stoffels. Back in 2012, J&J was forced to acknowledge that its big play on Alzheimer's had flunked out when bapineuzumab failed to beat out a placebo in treating Alzheimer's. That failure combined with Eli Lilly's ($LLY) Phase III flop with solanezumab set key players in the industry down new paths, looking for fresh ideas on how to slow or prevent the memory-wasting disease, which afflicts millions of patients.

Alector set out with four targets for Alzheimer's but has kept their R&D cards close to their vest for now. Rosenthal, though, told FierceBiotech that their growing understanding of the sporadic form of the disease--as opposed to the familial form--will help guide their efforts. And you can expect them to focus on early stages of the disease, which has emerged as the critical point at which new therapies are most likely to have their biggest impact.

"This agreement provides Alector with a lot of options while helping to reduce our burn rate; a win-win for both parties," added Gerngross, chairman of Alector, in a statement.

- here's the release