NsGene A/S, a gene and cell therapy spin-off from the Danish firm NeuroSearch A/S, signed its first industry collaboration, a deal with Biogen Inc. NsGene stands to gain up to US$20 million from the alliance in fees and milestone payments, plus royalties on any eventual products.

Ballerup-based NsGene and Biogen, of Cambridge, Mass., will cooperate in a basic research program on the biology of neublastin, a protein growth factor with neurotrophic activity, which belongs to the TGF beta superfamily. Biogen has rights to develop therapies based on neublastin for undisclosed peripheral nervous system diseases and, because of its existing position in the area, for multiple sclerosis. The latter condition is largely precautionary. NsGene CEO Teit Johansen said he is unaware of any potential for neublastin as a candidate for MS treatment. NsGene retains rights to develop therapies for other central nervous system diseases, including its lead program in Parkinson's.

The protein is the ligand for the RetL3 receptor, which Biogen scientists discovered. The two companies aim to develop a better understanding of its receptor signaling effects and to compare it with other members of the GDNF subgroup within the TGF beta superfamily, Johansen said. They will examine how binding of neublastin to neuronal receptors can lead to cell survival and differentiation.

NsGene's Parkinson's program, which is based around a collaboration with Anders Bjvrklund at the University of Lund, Sweden, is still at the preclinical stage. The company aims to transplant immortalized cells, based on precursor glial cells, that can express cloned neublastin. Animal models indicate this may have both a protective effect in patients with advanced Parkinson's and promote differentiation of transplanted cells to dopaminergic neurons.

"We do not have any line that is well characterized at this time," said Johansen. But once it has developed a secure cell platform, it aims to expand the program to other CNS diseases. It also is looking to perform the same procedure with encapsulated cells. "We are in the process of in-licensing technology to do that," he said.

NsGene is capitalized at DKK80 million (US$10.3 million) and has DKK60 million cash at present, which Johansen said is sufficient for three years. The Danish government agency Vaekstfonden is funding 45 percent of the company's cash burn through a soft loan of up to DKK46 million. NeuroSearch holds 28 percent of NsGene's equity. Its other shareholders include several Danish institutions, a number of private Swedish investors, and an investment fund linked to the Karolinksa Institute in Stockholm.