By Mary Welch
It's too early to tell if the founder of Centocor Inc. can overcome the inherent difficulties of building a new biotechnology company from scratch, but Hubert Schoemaker's new company, Neuronyx Inc., has taken the first steps.
Neuronyx just signed its first corporate collaboration, a research and development deal with Neose Technologies Inc. to develop drugs for Parkinson's disease and other neurological diseases.
The collaboration will focus initially on the modification of certain glycolipid compounds that already have shown clinical promise in stopping the progression of Parkinson's disease symptoms.
"I am a scientist by training," said the Dutch-born Schoemaker. "I love to try to figure out how and why cells work and how we get diseases. At Neuronyx, we're focusing on neurological function."
"We and Neose have a complementary set of skills," Stephen Webster, Neuronyx's president, chief operating officer and treasurer, said of the collaboration. "We will give them a set of compounds with neuroprotective properties, and Neose will focus on the synthesis and manufacturing scale-up of targeted compounds using its carbohydrate synthesis technologies. Neose is the expert in carbohydrate synthesis. We will focus on the preclinical and clinical development of the compounds."
Neuronyx, of Malvern, Pa., and Horsham, Pa.-based Neose will share in the financial benefits. In addition, Neose participated in a just-completed $6 million Series A financing round funded by "friends and family," Webster said.
Neose may be the young company's first corporate collaboration, but Webster said it won't be the last. "We're in several discussions right now. We believe that this Neose collaboration will be very fruitful. Parkinson's disease has been around a long time and the standard treatment of care helps for a while. With Michael J. Fox and Janet Reno, it's been the current focus of interest and people are realizing that there's a large unmet medical need."
Parkinson's disease won't be the only focus for Neuronyx.
Under Schoemaker's leadership, the company will explore brain and central nervous system disorders using a number of approaches, such as small molecules and stem cell-based therapies.
"My motivation is to focus on a product portfolio of therapies for patients who have these dreadful diseases," Schoemaker said. "For me, the motivation is to see a person with multiple sclerosis get out of a wheelchair or someone with Parkinson' disease not shaking."
Neuronyx's plan is to develop an integrated approach based on several promising technologies, such as the application of stem cell technologies for direct neuronal cell replacement in diseases characterized by neuronal dysfunction and/or neuronal loss. Another approach is to use stem cells as delivery vehicles (cellular gene therapy vectors) in which stem cells are genetically modified with proprietary or in-licensed genes for specific neurological applications. In addition, the company is developing novel neuroprotective agents for use in the treatment of ischemic injury, brain trauma and neurodegenerative diseases.
This direction puts Neuronyx in the position of developing therapies that not only halt the progression of a patient's disease (the small-molecule approach), but also that potentially could correct the disability and pathologic components (stem cell-based therapies), the company said.
"Because many neurodegenerative diseases share common pathways of cellular degeneration and destruction, neuroprotective therapies may be beneficial in multiple indications," Webster said.
Neuronyx was founded after Centocor was acquired by New Brunswick, N.J.-based Johnson & Johnson in a deal worth $4.9 billion. According to a report on the company's web page, Schoemaker left with $28 million worth of J&J stock. (See BioWorld Today Special Bulletin, July 21, 1999.)
"I am totally comfortable," Schoemaker said. "I could sit at the beach. I could do that for three days and then I have to do something. What I want to do is grow Neuronyx to be as big as or bigger than Centocor. I want to help patients. I will dedicate at least 20 years of my life and more if needed. I am totally driven to building another corporation. This is the right time and the right place."
Schoemaker recruited Webster, a former director with New York based-PaineWebber Inc., and Tony Ho, who serves as Neuronyx's vice president, research and development. Ho was an assistant professor in the neurology department at Johns Hopkins University, where he did research in stem cells, gangliosides, Guillain-Barre syndrome and Alzheimer's disease.
"There is so much new knowledge on the brain," Schoemaker said. "The whole genomics field is exploding and we've got a good team in place here. We could really develop neurological therapies for this century. We're going to do it."
Schoemaker has beaten the odds before. Centocor almost folded when its flagship drug, HA-1A, failed to win FDA approval in 1992 for sepsis. The news sent the stock tumbling 63 percent and Schoemaker slashed his employee roll down to 600 from 1,600. When Centocor was sold, it had a net income of $192 million, and its stock was selling at $57.56. (See BioWorld Today, Jan. 19, 1993, p. 1.)
Another obstacle Schoemaker overcame was a deadly brain disease, medulloblastoma. When he was diagnosed a little more than six years ago, the doctors told him there were only 10 adult survivors. He informed them there would now be 11.
"That's absolutely true," he said. "I am fortunate to be alive and I feel wonderful. Now that I have my health, my interest is to dedicate myself to this company and to treating these horrific diseases. I told the chairman of J&J that five years from now I wanted Centocor to be the cheapest acquisition he ever did. And I'm going to grow this company the same way."