Katerina Akassoglou, PhD, senior investigator at Gladstone Institutes, has fundamentally changed the way scientists think of neurological disorders. She made the seminal discovery that blood leaks are toxic to the brain by promoting inflammation and destroying neurons. Her research led the scientific community to reassess the complex relationship between the brain, immune, and vascular systems. Recently, she and her team developed a new immunotherapy targeting a toxic function of a blood-clotting protein and found that it protects against neurodegeneration in mouse models.
Based on this groundbreaking research, Gladstone, in close collaboration with QB3 and UC San Diego, launched a spin-off company called MedaRed, Inc. This biotechnology company is developing new therapeutics that could help treat patients with multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.
In addition to Akassoglou, MedaRed is also founded by co-founder Edward Spack, PhD, entrepreneur and drug development expert; Stephen B. Freedman, PhD, vice president for corporate ventures and translation at Gladstone; Anke Meyer-Franke, PhD, director of Gladstone’s Assay Development Core; and Jae Kyu Ryu, PhD, staff research scientist in Akassoglou’s lab.
“This new venture exemplifies Gladstone’s innovation and commitment to translate basic research findings into therapies for patients with unmet clinical needs.”
This represents a culmination of the work conducted by Akassoglou and her team, who has dedicated much of her career to investigating the role of blood proteins in diseases of the nervous system. “Leaks of blood in the brain and vascular damage are common threads in many neurological diseases including Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis,” says Akassoglou, who is also a professor of neurology at UC San Francisco (UCSF) and adjunct professor of pharmacology at UC San Diego, and now sits on the board of directors for MedaRed. “Our 20 years of research on the damaging role of blood leaks and the coagulation factor fibrin in the brain could be the springboard for the development of a new class of therapeutics to protect the brain from the harmful effects of toxic inflammation and vascular damage” says Akassoglou.
MedaRed is the first spin-off company at Gladstone to be founded by a female investigator, and the first launched in collaboration with the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), the University of California’s hub for innovation and entrepreneurship in life science. Akassoglou’s research at UC San Diego formed the foundation of MedaRed’s technology portfolio, and research at Gladstone Institutes and UCSF enabled and expanded the technology platform. The company was supported by an initial investment by the National MS Society, through FastForward, and also recently announced $6.35 million in seed funding from the Dementia Discovery Fund and Dolby Family Ventures.
“We are very proud to support the translation of this important research, and we work hard at Gladstone to ensure we have mechanisms in place to help move such discoveries into real therapies that can benefit people.” says Gladstone President Deepak Srivastava, MD. “This is also an impressive accomplishment for Katerina, especially given that only 2 percent of venture capital money is invested in companies with female founders.”
“Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for researchers and Bay Area entrepreneurs to commercialize their discoveries and inventions,” adds Regis Kelly, PhD, OBE, executive director of QB3 and Byers Family Distinguished Professor at UCSF. “The research by this group of scientists is a perfect example of the critical work that needs our support.”
The new biotechnology company is based on years of research by Akassoglou and her team at Gladstone Institutes, UC San Diego, and UCSF, who were the first to show that when blood proteins leak into the brain, the blood coagulation factor fibrin activates the brain’s immune system, triggering inflammation and neuron death. While fibrin does not normally enter the brain, the team found that in several neurological disorders, the blood-brain barrier becomes permeable and allows fibrin to leak into the brain and trigger inflammation. This process may lead to the death of nerve cells in multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and other disorders. For her work in multiple sclerosis, Akassoglou recently received the Barancik Prize for Innovation in MS Research.
“This new venture exemplifies Gladstone’s innovation and commitment to translate basic research findings into therapies for patients with unmet clinical needs” says Freedman. “There is now an opportunity to develop a new class of therapeutics for neurological diseases” he added.
In a study published in 2018, Akassoglou, along with Meyer-Franke and Ryu, developed the first potential treatment to inhibit fibrin from harming the brain, without compromising its clotting function. They showed that fibrin-targeting immunotherapy could protect the brain from the toxic effects of blood leakage in neurodegenerative diseases.
“This work could directly impact patients in dire need of care” says MedaRed co-founder Edward Spack.
“We are grateful to be working with the robust scientific findings from Gladstone,” says MedaRed’s CEO Daniel Burgess. “MedaRed is now working to make a version of this antibody that can be scaled and used to address an unmet clinical need in human patients.”