Though it’s yet to even get its brain cell protection drug into Phase 1 trials, Quincy Bioscience is far from the typical young biotech on a shoestring budget.
For one thing, there’s the Madison, Wisconsin company’s unusual technology. Quincy has patented the use of a jellyfish protein called aequorin to treat disorders that result from excess calcium in the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
But what really makes the company different is that its jellyfish protein product is already on the market in the form of a dietary supplement called Prevagen that promises to help combat memory loss. That means that not only does the company have a good idea of the protein’s safety in humans, but Quincy has already proven its ability to scale up and manufacture the product. (The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t verified the company’s claims about Prevagen, nor is it required to do so for supplements to be sold in the U.S.)
Quincy already has sales rolling in and, thanks to that revenue and about $5 million in angel funding, has grown to 43 employees. Nonetheless, there are plenty of significant hurdles and potential pratfalls that lie in Quincy’s path to getting an aequorin-based drug on the market — a process that will likely take five years even in the best-case scenario.
Most importantly, the company will have to put its drug through several rounds of lengthy and expensive clinical trials. And even if the trials apparently go well, the drug will still need to pass through the sometimes-arduous approval process by the FDA.
Quincy’s biggest priority and challenge right now is finding the right partner, whether it’s a small biotech or a Big Pharma firm, to help it develop its drug and shoulder some of the costs of clinical trials, said Mark Underwood, the company’s president. “The technology is there, but it’ll take a good team to make this happen,” he said.
Underwood said he’s in the early stages of talks that he characterized as “positive” with potential partners. “They recognize the amount of risk we’re removing in every step we do,” he said.
That’s a reference to early data from a study of the jellyfish protein in 35 people with an average age of 61 — though the study isn’t sanctioned by the FDA. So far the company likes what it’s seen, as the protein improved cognitive testing scores by 14 percent in 60 days compared to a placebo.
The jellyfish protein works by binding to calcium ions, essentially acting as a sponge to sop up extra calcium in the brain. Brain cells lose protective proteins as the body ages, and that can lead to the build-up of calcium and a reduction in brain function. Quincy doesn’t harm any jellyfish in producing the protein; the company has figured out how to manufacture the substance itself.
Dr. Jeffrey Cummings, director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, said a drug that binds to calcium ions in the brain could inhibit the development of Alzheimer’s, depending on the drug’s mechanism of action. “Calcium enters the cell during the cell-death cycle and inhibition of this process might be neuroprotective,” he said.
In addition to supporting its operations from sales of Prevagen, which has been on the market since 2007, Quincy closed a $3 million Series A round of funding from angels in 2008 and is about halfway to an anticipated $3.5 million Series B, Underwood said.
Once Quincy finds the right company to partner with, Underwood is confident that things will begin falling into place for the Madison biotech. “We’ve seen enough positive results that it’s not daunting to go down this path,” he said.