Escape Bio nabs $73M as race with well-heeled Biogen and Denali heats up

Escape Bio has drifted from the focus that earned it a $63 million Series A in 2017, but that hasn’t hindered the company’s ability to raise cash from bluechip investors.

In what was publicly billed as a crossover round, the neuroscience startup took home $73 million in a raise led by Wellington Capital Management and joined by a slate of new and old investors including the VC arms of Novartis and J&J. That money will help push two experimental drugs deeper into the clinic, including one that pits them in a race with Denali and Biogen, as the company tries to build a precision neuroscience base in South San Francisco.

“The proceeds allow us to accelerate two programs into patients who lack disease modifying treatments,” CEO Julie Ann Smith said in a statement.

The cash will go towards two different programs. One is a relatively unique approach to lysosome disorders and Parkinson’s disease. The other is a spin on an approach for Parkinson’s disease that Denali and Biogen recently signed a $1 billion deal to pursue. Notably absent from the announcement is the APOE4-targeting program that formed the company’s early nucleus and remains on their most recent presentation from May.

The lead drug, ESB1609, is designed to prevent disorders associated with lysosomes — organelles full of digestive enzymes that are implicated in numerous neurodegenerative conditions. It does that, in theory, by targeting SIP5, a receptor expressed throughout the central nervous system and on natural killer cells. Activating SIP5, the company says, increases the activity of lipid transporters, promoting lipid levels in the brain and curbing markers of neurodegenerations.

The drug is now in Phase I/II studies for Niemann-Pick Type C, a rare neurodegenerative condition caused by an inability to transport cholesterol and lipids inside cells. Escape says that in preclinical models, the drug led to decreased levels of amyloid-beta and tau, two proteins closely linked with Alzheimer’s.

The lead Parkinson’s drug, ESB5070, targets LRRK2. The gene is implicated in some forms of genetically-linked Parkinson’s. Many patients have one wild type gene and one mutant gene. Denali and Biogen are pursuing a strategy that targets both normal and mutant versions of LRRK2, Escape says, potentially interfering with efficacy and safety.

Escape is trying to develop an inhibitor that targets only the mutant type. The drug is currently in IND-enabling studies.

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