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Genentech, Biotech Partner on Multiple Sclerosis

Neurons illustration

Neurons (Laura Struzyna, University of Pennsylvania, NIH.gov)

16 July 2019. A company designing treatments to restore the protective coating on nerve cells damaged by multiple sclerosis is collaborating with biotechnology enterprise Genentech. While only some financial details of the agreement were disclosed, the deal includes an option by Genentech, a subsidiary of drug maker Roche in San Francisco, to acquire Convelo Therapeutics Inc. in Cleveland, Ohio.

Convelo Therapeutics is a spin-off business from the labs of geneticists Paul Tesar and Drew Adams at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Tesar and Adams, Convelo’s founders, study the myelin sheath that protects nerve cells in the brain. Myelin is the fatty, protective substance around nerve fibers, as well as nerve cells themselves. Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune condition, where the immune system attacks the central nervous system and damages myelin. Scar tissue from the damaged myelin, known as sclerosis, distorts the nerve signals sent to and from the brain and spinal cord, causing symptoms ranging from mild numbness to loss of vision or paralysis.

The company’s technology, licensed from Case Western Reserve, aims to restore the myelin sheath destroyed in people with multiple sclerosis. Tesar and Adams discovered key roles played by stem cells in the development of oligodendrocytes that produce myelin. In healthy individuals, these precursor cells form new oligodendrocytes that maintain the protective myelin around nerve cells. Studies by Tesar and Adams identified a central pathway in the body that controls production of myelin and targets for therapies if that pathway is disrupted. The researchers also highlighted the role of specific steroid alcohols or sterols that contribute to the formation of oligodendrocytes in myelin production.

The deal calls for Convelo and Genentech to collaborate on discovery of new remyelination therapies for multiple sclerosis and other neurological disorders caused by damaged myelin. One of these other conditions is leukodystrophy, a rare genetic disorder marked by myelin loss or dysfunction, usually affecting young children and with no treatment options. Myelin damage and loss is also found in some cases of trauma to the central nervous system, as a result of spinal cord injury, stroke, concussion, and traumatic brain injury.

Under the agreement, Convelo is receiving an initial payment from Genentech, as well as funding for the joint research by the two companies. Genentech will retain an exclusive option to acquire all of Convelo’s outstanding stock, with Convelo eligible for future milestone payments. Dollar amounts of the payments to Convelo were not disclosed.

“There have been important treatment advancements for people living with multiple sclerosis, but many still experience disability progression,” says James Sabry, who heads Roche’s global pharma partnering, in a Convelo statement. “Novel medicines that regenerate the myelin around nerve cells could help address this significant need.”

Science & Enterprise reported on Convelo’s emergence from stealth-incubation mode in July 2018. At that time, research papers by the company’s founders appeared in the journals Nature and Nature Methods.

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