Alector CEO Arnon Rosenthal

Bringing the principles of immuno-oncology to Alzheimer's

CEO: Arnon Rosenthal
Based: San Francisco
Founded: 2013
Clinical focus: Neurodegenerative disease
Company website

The scoop: Developing drugs for Alzheimer's disease, a daunting task, has lately focused on toxic proteins that accumulate in the brain. Which to target is the subject of sometimes heated debate, and some contend both are more likely to be red herrings than the keys to reversing decades of clinical failure. But San Francisco's Alector is taking an entirely different approach. The company's founders believe Alzheimer's observable effects are the result of upstream problems with the immune system, and Alector is at work on treatments designed to help the body's natural defenses fend off neurodegenerative disease before it can set in.

What makes Alector Fierce: Founded in 2013, the company united Genentech veteran Arnon Rosenthal, Columbia University professor Dr. Asa Abeliovich and Adimab founder Tillman Gerngross in pursuit of a simple hypothesis: What if drug developers have been approaching neurodegenerative disease all wrong?

Alector's guiding theory is that neurodegenerative disease is, at its core, an immune disorder. That means the brain-degrading processes at play in ailments like Alzheimer's disease are the result of the immune system failing to identify certain pathogens before they get out of hand. Poring over swaths of genetic data, Alector's founders noted that many of the genes implicated in Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, dementia and other disorders also modulate the immune system, a promising trail they believe could lead to first-of-their-kind therapies.

And the idea caught the attention of some high-profile investors. OrbiMed and Polaris Partners helped seed the company at its outset, and this month Alector added Google Ventures, Topspin Partners, Mission Bay Capital and MRL Ventures to the syndicate, raising a $32 million Series C.

With that cash, Alector is buckling down on preclinical drug development, Rosenthal said, tapping its partners at Adimab to churn out antibody therapies that might help the immune system prevent neurodegeneration. Alector's in-house research team has identified 12 leads for new neurodegeneration treatments, Rosenthal said, and the company's latest fundraise will help get two of them through preclinical development. Alector is disclosing neither its initial targets nor its planned timeline for pushing its projects forward, saying only that it will need to roughly double its current staff of 12 along the way.

"Converting a discovery company into a clinical company is a significant ambition," Rosenthal said. "But Tillman and I have done it in the past. We know how to do it."

Rosenthal said Alector is looking to do for neurodegenerative disease what immunotherapies have done for cancer. For the last decade in oncology, the prevailing focus was on targeted therapies, genetically honed treatments that performed well in stratified groups of patients. But the rise of immuno-oncology, therapies designed to galvanize a natural attack on tumors, has presented a more integrated approach to treatment, he said. Alector's work could have the same effect in neurodegeneration, moving away from the debates around tau and amyloid beta and instead embracing a unified theory of pathogen development.

In the meantime, Alector is keeping up ongoing discussions with pharma partners looking to cut in on its approach to neurodegeneration, Rosenthal said. The company signed an early-stage deal with Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) last year covering a single asset, and Alector is taking a program-by-program approach to the rest of its pipeline, he said, looking to bring in bigger collaborators only when it can use their expertise.

Investors: OrbiMed, Polaris Partners, Google Ventures, Topspin Partners, Mission Bay Capital and MRL Ventures

For more:
Google, OrbiMed buy into Alector's novel take on Alzheimer's with a $32M round
J&J partners with a biotech startup on a new approach to Alzheimer's
Alzheimer's experts team up with Adimab, grab $10M to launch Alector

-- Damian Garde (email | Twitter)