The news: University of Washington spinout AltPep recently raised $44.4 million, according to a regulatory filing. The company declined to discuss the filing, but founder and CEO Valerie Daggett spoke with GeekWire about AltPep’s progress on its experimental blood test to detect Alzheimer’s disease at the earliest stages.
“We’re going after that first molecular trigger for the pathology,” said Daggett, who is also a UW professor of bioengineering. The 3-year old startup is also developing a diagnostic for Parkinson’s disease and treatments for both conditions.
Making progress: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently gave AltPep’s Alzheimer’s test its “breakthrough device” designation, putting it on the path to prioritized review. The company is developing a kit for the test and talking with potential partners, including large diagnostic companies.
AltPep’s tests for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are also being used in preclinical studies for the company’s candidate treatments for those conditions. The tests would ideally be approved before future clinical trials and would be used in conjunction with them, said Daggett.
Building the company: AltPep raised $23.1 million in a Series A round in January 2021 led by Matrix Capital Investment with participation from Alexandria Venture Investments. AtlPep, located in Seattle’s Northlake neighborhood, now has 25 employees and is hiring.
AltPep also hired a chief medical officer, Gilbert Block, early on. That’s not something a lot of startups do, said Daggett. “Our preclinical studies are being designed with an eye to the clinic,” she said. “We are really trying to bring that in early to not go off in too many tangents.”
The research at AltPep and in Daggett’s UW lab build off of each other. “We can still do a lot of the basic research at UW and publish, and it can help inform what we’re doing with AltPep,” she said.
The people: Other members of the leadership team include Patrik Edenholm, chief operating officer; Charles Horne, chief financial officer; Kurt Becker, VP, legal and business development; and Nancy Hill, chief product officer.
Board members are Daggett, biotech veteran Todd Patrick, Adaptive Biotechnologies co-founder and CEO Chad Robins, Matrix Capital Management co-founder David Goel; and Joel Marcus, executive chairman and founder of Alexandria Real Estate Equities/Alexandria Venture Investments.
How it works: Toxic forms of a molecule called Amyloid-beta are thought to set Alzheimer’s disease in motion, years before the symptoms of Alzheimer’s manifest. Research from multiple labs suggests that Amyloid-beta forms toxic “oligomers” that build up in the brain and trigger a host of other pathologies. AltPep’s diagnostic detects these oligomers, which are also present in the blood.
The company’s approach to treating Alzheimer’s disease targets the same oligomers, with the aim of hijacking the disease before it sets in. “It’s really important to go after the very earliest events,” said Daggett.
More science: Daggett and her colleagues showed that the oligomers adopt a specific three-dimensional structure as they form, called an alpha-sheet. The researchers also generated matching peptides, small proteins that bind the structure — these peptides are the basis of the company’s therapeutics and Alzheimer’s test, called SOBA (soluble oligomer-binding assay)-AD. AltPep is taking a similar approach to developing diagnostics and treatments for Parkinson’s disease, which also is associated with a protein that forms alpha-sheets.
State of the field: Despite decades of research and hundreds of clinical trials, big breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s disease treatment remain elusive. One key reason, said Daggett, is that most experimental approaches target the disease well after it is underway, often aiming for Amyloid-beta after it’s formed nasty clumps throughout the brain. The controversial new drug Aduhelm mainly targets forms of Amyloid-beta more prevalent at later disease stages, said Daggett.
Meanwhile, companies like Seattle’s Athira Pharma are aiming for targets other than Amyloid-beta.
Most experimental diagnostics also are geared to detect later stages of the disease, said Daggett. “So far, there hasn’t been a way to diagnose early enough, and there hasn’t been a way to treat early enough, and we’ve got that target,” said Daggett.