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Daiichi Sankyo, UCSF Partner on Neurodegenerative Disorders

3-D brain wiring illustration

3-D brain wiring illustration (NIH)

4 April 2014. The pharmaceutical company Daiichi Sankyo in Tokyo and University of California in San Francisco (UCSF) are collaborating on discovering new drugs to treat neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. While funding amounts were not disclosed, the deal gives Daiichi Sankyo the option to license compounds discovered through the partnership, in exchange for milestone payments and royalties to UC-San Francisco.

Neurodegenerative diseases cover a number of conditions where neurons or nerve cells in the brain or spinal cord are damaged or die. These disorders are today incurable, and treatments generally try to control symptoms affecting muscle movement and mental functioning. The EU’s Joint Programme on Neurodegenerative Disease says the breakdown of mental functions known as dementias cause the biggest burden of these disorders, with Alzheimer’s disease accounting for most (60 to 70%) of dementia cases.

The agreement calls for Daiichi Sankyo to provide its library of drug compounds to UC-San Francisco’s Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases. Researchers from the company’s Venture Science Laboratories and the institute will perform high-throughput screening of the compounds to find promising biological connections among the compounds, genes, and molecular pathways that point to new targets for those compounds.

Much of recent research at the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases focuses on the role of prions in these disorders. Prions are pathogenic agents that propagate, are transmittable,  and cause abnormal folding of cellular proteins concentrated in the brain. Stanley Prusiner, director of the institute, conducted some of the early research connecting prions to “mad cow” and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. In an article published in the journal Science in June 2012, Prusiner outlined the potential role of prions in neurodegenerative disorders other than Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

“Alzheimer’s alone kills as many people every year as cancer does, but it only receives one-tenth of the funding that we dedicate to cancer research,” notes Prusiner in a university statement. “This collaboration won’t fill that funding gap, but it will offer the tremendous value of Daiichi Sankyo’s scientific expertise to make progress on these diseases.”

Neurodegenerative diseases represent a new direction for Daiichi Sankyo. The company’s current pipeline has drugs for chronic pain and spinal cord injury in clinical trials, but no programs underway for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or related diseases. Its Venture Science Laboratories taking part in the collaboration with UC-San Francisco operates as an internal entrepreneurial enterprise for the discovery of new therapeutic targets.

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