Biogen Idec buys into Eisai's BACE camp on Alzheimer's as drug race heats up

Biogen Idec has bought into the popular--and controversial--BACE camp in its effort to develop a therapy to treat Alzheimer's disease. The big biotech ($BIIB) worked a deal with Eisai, offering to cover half of the research and development costs of a pair of mid-stage Alzheimer's therapies and adding an unspecified package of milestones and an upfront in exchange for half the potential profits. And Eisai in turn nabbed an option on a pair of Biogen Idec's internal Alzheimer's programs: an anti-amyloid antibody dubbed BIIB037 and an anti-tau monoclonal antibody.

In the deal Biogen Idec nails down a big stake in E2609 and BAN2401. E2609 was discovered internally at Eisai and is about to go into Phase II to determine its merits as a BACE inhibitor, the hottest current approach in Alzheimer's drug research right now when it comes to attacking amyloid beta, the toxic protein often found in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. The theory is that targeting beta secretase can break down the mechanism that creates amyloid beta. And investigators have been looking for ways to dissolve the toxic protein clumps in the brain as well as prevent them from being formed in the first place.

BAN2401--inlicensed originally from BioArctic Neuroscience AB--is an immunotherapy for Alzheimer's already in Phase II. It's another shot at the same goal, with investigators exploring its potential for eliminating the clumps of amyloid beta in the brain.

The collaboration has the potential to bring together a combination approach to Alzheimer's that could attack Alzheimer's on the amyloid beta front as well as tau, another prime suspect in the development of a disease that robs people of their memories. As the world's population grows, the spread of Alzheimer's has created an enormous pool of desperate patients. But investigators increasingly have focused as far upstream as they can reliably get to after a pair of high-profile attempts to treat mild and moderate groups at Eli Lilly ($LLY) and Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ)/Pfizer ($PFE) ended in failure.

Merck ($MRK) has emerged as the leader in the BACE race, accelerating a late-stage study of its own BACE drug after clearing a safety hurdle in the clinic. And AstraZeneca has a BACE candidate--AZD3293--in the clinic as well. But the field has already had some notable setbacks. Eli Lilly attracted broad attention for the failure of its BACE inhibitor, LY2886721, after evidence of liver toxicity surfaced in patients. Roche ($RHHBY), meanwhile, quietly axed its early-stage program for RG7129 recently without stirring much attention or offering any explanation.

Scientists in the field have also raised some serious questions regarding potential unintended consequences of a BACE drug, including whether this approach could interfere with myelination, threatening patients.

"Eisai's candidates have demonstrated compelling early data and complement our AD research while extending our pipeline in this critical area," said Biogen CEO George Scangos. "Eisai is a pioneer in successfully developing and commercializing AD treatments."

- here's the press release