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Indianapolis startup attacks Alzheimer's disease

May 29, 2010

An Indianapolis startup hopes to attack Alzheimer’s disease by toning down electrical activity in a tiny pocket of the brain before memory losses lead to serious problems.

AgeneBio Inc. this month landed a $300,000 investment from the Indiana Seed Fund to fund operations, bolster its intellectual property, and begin learning how to make a drug into a once-a-day pill.

Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore is conducting a proof-of-concept study to determine if results from certain drugs justify asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to allow full-scale human testing.

Agene is testing several existing drugs in the hope of hitting a potent combination of chemicals and dosage.

“If it’s not used the right way, it won’t work,” said CEO Tim Parshall. But, “If we nail the thing completely, in four to five years we could bring something to market.”

Founded in Baltimore in 2008 and moved to Indianapolis in March 2009, Agene is based on research at Johns Hopkins University showing some of the drugs could stop memory loss in rats.

The drugs under consideration are used for epilepsy and other neurological and psychological conditions. Parshall won’t disclose the names of the drugs for fear people facing memory loss would demand prescriptions from their doctors.

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None of the drugs were developed by Eli Lilly and Co. even though Parshall previously helped the Indianapolis-based drugmaker license and develop neurological drugs. He left in 2003 as director of global strategy for Lilly’s Zyprexa antipsychotic.

Parshall jumped to Guidant Corp., an Indianapolis-based heart pacemaker and defibrillator maker, then left Guidant after it was acquired by Massachusetts-based Boston Scientific Corp. in 2006.

Agene was founded by Johns Hopkins professor Michela Gallagher after she discovered that an area of the brain the size of a pea becomes overactive with electrical impulses before the onset of Alzheimer’s. Tone down the impulses to normal levels, Gallagher reasoned, and Alzheimer’s might be prevented.

Parshall met Gallagher through a mutual acquaintance, Dr. J. David Leander, who assessed neuroscience opportunities for Lilly before retiring in 2002, and who is senior scientific adviser to Agene.

Parshall brought Agene to the Indiana University Emerging Technology Center small-business incubator in downtown Indianapolis because he lives in the area, and because the area has low costs and plenty of Lilly neuroscience experts to tap as consultants.

There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s, though some drugs slow the symptoms for a few months.

The Alzheimer’s Association says 5.3 million Americans have the disease and that it’s the seventh-leading cause of death.

Agene is by no means alone in targeting the Alzheimer’s market, which analysts have estimated could generate $25 billion a year globally. Several major drug companies, including Lilly, and biotech firms are searching for cures.

Parshall would not disclose how much money Agene has raised or who else has invested. However, he said the other shareholders are all local individuals.

David Johnson, CEO of BioCrossroads, the not-for-profit life sciences initiative that manages the Indiana Seed Fund, said Parshall brings an ideal background of pharmaceutical experience and consulting to infant life sciences companies in the period between his tenure at Guidant and Agene.

“He’s a deeply qualified person who has done his homework,” Johnson said. “When Tim brings forward an idea like this, you’re going to look at it.”

With Agene, Indiana Seed Fund now has invested in 10 companies in chunks ranging from $250,000 to $500,000. Johnson wouldn’t say how much of the $6 million has been committed to startups.•

Despite the recession, none of the companies has gone under, Johnson noted.•

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