Professor David Vocadlo.

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SFU spin-off tackles Progressive Supranuclear Palsy and Alzheimer’s Disease

April 25, 2016
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Almost 10 years ago, long-time friends David Vocadlo and Ernest McEachern met over coffee at Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus to discuss some intriguing basic research on sugar-processing enzymes.

An unlikely hypothesis was beginning to emerge, that coating proteins with a bit of sugar would actually make them less sticky and block them from forming toxic clumps. It was an idea that the pair thought could have big implications for diseases caused by protein aggregation.

Excited by the potential of these findings they bridged the academic-industry divide. With McEachern bringing years of industry experience and SFU professor Vocadlo bringing expertise regarding the target enzyme and the roles of sugars in cells, they founded Alectos Therapeutics – a company born and grown with the support of the university.

Leveraging complementary backgrounds and expertise, they worked with a team to build on SFU findings to identify and develop a number of compounds, which act to modulate an enzyme that is involved in regulating sugar levels on proteins.

They hoped that this class of compounds would eventually prove useful in treating a number of currently untreatable neurodegenerative disorders that stem from proteins clumping together, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

“Our company is a textbook example of how SFU supports innovation,” says McEachern, who is now Alectos CEO.

“Not only has SFU provided a vibrant scientific environment to make the fundamental basic scientific advances, it was also highly supportive of our effort to develop and commercialize this research.”

The company has grown from the team of two to a scientific staff of 10. It also gained global recognition when in 2010 it announced a license and research collaboration with Merck, worth a total of $289 million, to pursue this novel therapeutic target for neurodegenerative diseases.

This April, the company announced another major milestone in its quest to combat neurodegenerative diseases, including Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), a disorder that causes loss of balance, cognitive impairment and eventually death.

After years of work and clinical trials, the FDA granted the Merck / Alectos OGA inhibitor MK-8719 “orphan drug designation”.  This designation will support development of MK-8719 to treat the tens of thousands of people who suffer from PSP worldwide. The researchers say it will also aid ongoing efforts to find an effective therapy for Alzheimer’s disease.

“We are excited about the potential for this pioneering therapeutic approach for patients affected by PSP and other tauopathies,” says McEachern.

“Our scientific leadership in the area of OGA modulators and the strength of our collaboration with Merck will advance new therapies for a range of neuroscience disorders, including Alzheimer’s.”

Vocadlo says moving basic university research into a company, and translating those ideas into a therapeutic tested in the clinic is a long but worthwhile journey.

“It takes a forward-thinking university like SFU and a great team effort. But another essential ingredient is strong support of basic research,” he says.

Now, years after founding their company, McEachern and Vocadlo still meet regularly for coffee to talk science and chart out how to tackle the next big problem, including a promising new treatment for Parkinson’s disease.

To learn more about Alectos Therapeutics and its latest announcement, visit alectos.com.