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Neuro Disease Biotech Gains $61M in Early Funds

Brain cell networks

(Gerd Altmann, Pixabay)

9 Oct. 2023. A developer of treatments for Alzheimer’s disease that seeks to improve the condition of the brain’s support cells is raising £48 million ($US 61 million) in its first venture round. AstronauTx Ltd. is a four year-old company in London, started by the Dementia Discovery Fund to advance therapies with alternative mechanisms of action from other techniques showing limited results.

The company says it focuses on a type of cell called astrocytes to improve the brain’s ability to clear toxic accumulations such as amyloid-beta and tau associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Astrocytes are a subset of glial cells that make up most of the cells in the brain and support the functioning of neurons, cells that send and receive electrical signals in the brain and elsewhere. Among astrocytes’ key tasks are protecting the central nervous system by clearing excess neurotransmitters and other potentially damaging substances.

AstronauTx says it’s developing treatments that boost the ability of astrocytes to perform their protective roles, while enhancing the cells’ metabolic functions and emission of hormones for the long-term health of neurons. In people with Alzheimer’s disease, says the company, these functions are overwhelmed as neurodegeneration takes hold and progresses. At its founding, AstronauTx said it planned to build on research at the Alzheimer’s Research UK Drug Discovery Alliance at University College London.

Rare variant associated with degenerative effects

While AstronauTx does not reveal precise details of its technology, the work of the company’s chief scientist Jamie Bilsland offers a few hints. In 2019, Bilsland co-authored a paper identifying a rare variant in the phospholipase C-gamma 2 or PLCG2 gene that codes for a signaling enzyme in immune cells, which the authors associate with late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. A more recent paper highlights further associations of this variant enzyme with degenerative effects on glial cells in the brain, such as astrocytes.

Also, in July 2023, AstronauTx agreed to a licensing deal with the Danish biotechnology company Saniona that discovers new therapies targeting ion channels on cell membranes forming tiny pores in cells to encourage cell signaling. Dysfunctions in ion channels on astrocytes are associated with several neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease. The agreement calls for the two companies to collaborate on discovering neurodegenerative disease treatments affecting an undisclosed ion channel target.

AstronauTx is raising £48 million in its first venture funding round, led by the Novartis Venture Fund, the corporate venture arm of drug maker Novartis that backs biotechnology and biopharmaceutical start-ups in Europe, North America, and Israel. Joining the round are MPM Capital, Brandon Capital, EQT Life Sciences, Bristol Myers Squibb, and the company’s founding investor Dementia Discovery Fund.

Proceeds from the venture round are expected to advance the company’s lead candidate for Alzheimer’s disease, but also other neurodegenerative disorders. “Our treatments will be oral drugs,” says AstronauTx co-founder and CEO Ruth McKernan in a company statement, “applicable across multiple neurodegenerative conditions, and additive with mechanisms that are currently in late-stage development.” McKernan adds, “We now know that the processes causing Alzheimer’s and other similar diseases are modifiable. Progress towards a compendium of new drugs against these devastating diseases is thankfully well underway.”

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