Billionaire backs new program for a pioneering Alzheimer's vaccine from AC Immune

Dietmar Hopp

German billionaire Dietmar Hopp is adding to his multimillion-dollar wager on AC Immune, the Swiss biotech that is playing a key role in some high-profile Alzheimer's programs. Hopp has been the primary investor behind the company, and today he joined in a $22 million D round designed to fund a new therapeutic vaccine program aimed at the memory-wasting disease.

AC Immune isn't built like most biotechs. CEO Andrea Pfeifer has arranged some lucrative partnerships with Genentech, which most notably is pursuing a high-profile mid-stage program for crenezumab, an antibody discovered by the Swiss biotech. That antibody is designed to work on amyloid beta, a toxic protein that is implicated in the development of Alzheimer's disease.

That partnership money has helped fuel the company's basic research work, while this new injection of cash is specifically earmarked for the clinical development of another antibody that AC Immune has discovered and successfully tested in animals. This new therapy targets tau, the other tangle in the brain that has also been implicated as a trigger for Alzheimer's. AC Immune has now raised a total of $88 million in venture funds, with hundreds of millions more involved in its pacts. Hopp, an active biotech investor, has been one of the company's biggest backers.

"We have excellent data from toxicology," Pfeifer tells FierceBiotech today about the phosphor-tau initiative, adding that "the animal data were excellent."

The advance on tau helps sets the stage for future combos involving antibodies for both tau and amyloid beta, part of a multipronged approach that the CEO of the Lausanne-based biotech believes will ultimately be required to conquer what has been one of the most vexing scientific challenges in biopharma. And any company which finds a key to solving the complex puzzle of Alzheimer's, or owns any part of it, will stand to earn a blockbuster windfall.

So far, though, dozens of Alzheimer's studies have failed in recent years, with far more failure than success in a field marked by some mightily expensive mistakes undertaken by giants like Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) and Eli Lily ($LLY).

The plan at AC Immune is to complete an early-stage safety study of this new vaccine and then look to bring in a partner, says Pfeifer, noting the extraordinarily high cost associated with Alzheimer's R&D.

- here's the press release (PDF)

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