Three Former Genentech Researchers Launch Neuroscience Company Denali Therapeutics With $217 Million

Published: May 18, 2015

Three Former Genentech Researchers Launch Neuroscience Company Denali Therapeutics With $217 Million
May 14, 2015
By Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

A new biotech company was launched today in San Francisco, founded by three former Genentech researchers. The company, Denali Therapeutics, will focus on translational research for the development of drugs to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS and others.

The founders are Ryan Watts, former director of Genentech’s Department of Neuroscience, who will be Denali’s chief executive officer, chief scientific officer and board member. Acting as chief operating officer is Alexander Schuth, former director and head of Genentech’s Neuroscience Partnering. Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of The Rockefeller University will be the chairman of Denali’s board. Tessier-Lavigne was head of Genentech’s drug research prior to its acquisition by Roche in 2009. He is also stepping down from his seat on Pfizer Inc. ’s board.

“Our team will place an emphasis on rigorous translational medicine for targeted drug development, seeking evidence of drug activity in the brain and identifying biomarker-defined patient populations to increase the probability of clinical success,” said Ryan Watts in a statement. “We are committed to collaborating with leading academic groups, companies and advocacy groups.”

The founders raised $217 million in venture capital. “The science in the field has been breaking open and this has been accelerating over the past decade,” said Tessier-Lavigne in a statement. “Denali is based on the idea that the time is right to tackle these diseases systematically and deeply.”

The field of neurodegenerative research is a crowded one, with Biogen, Inc., Eli Lilly and Company , Merck & Co. and Genentech all working on Alzheimer’s research. Denali’s approach will be to focus on newly discovered genes tied to degenerative brain diseases, which Watts and the Denali founders are calling degenogenes. The company will also focus on the nascent field of how inflammation affects neural diseases. Denali is already evaluating 12 still undisclosed drug targets.

Additional investors include Fidelity Biosciences, ARCH Venture Partners, Flagship Ventures, and the Alaska Permanent Fund, represented by Crestline.

“The best scientists in the world are now calling us,” said Robert Nelsen, co-founder of ARCH Ventures in a statement. “You can’t wait 10 or 20 years for the perfect study in Alzheimer’s when it’s going to cost us a trillion dollars in today’s dollars by 2050. The societal cost of these diseases is mind-blowing.”

This year marks significant research and industry focus on Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. On Feb. 16, 2015, the Cambridge, U.K.-based Alzheimer’s Research UK announced a Drug Discovery Alliance that will invest £30 million in three institutes in Cambridge, Oxford and London. They are expected to hire 90 new researchers.

On May 8 Israel-based NeuroDerm Ltd. announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had given the company the go-ahead to continue its clinical studies for a Parkinson’s treatment. Other companies working in the Parkinson’s space include IMPAX Laboratories, Inc. and AbbVie .

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