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WashU, Eisai form drug discovery collaboration

Focus is on therapies for Alzheimer’s, other neurodegenerative diseases

by Tamara BhandariDecember 14, 2022

Brian Gordon

Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the pharmaceutical company Eisai Co. Ltd., headquartered in Japan, have formed a research collaboration aimed at developing new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions. The two organizations previously have partnered on Alzheimer’s clinical trials, and the new alliance combines their complementary efforts to identify and validate biomarkers and drug targets for a range of neurodegenerative conditions, with a goal of developing new drugs for the benefit of patients worldwide.

“Washington University School of Medicine is a global leader in neuroscience research, and we’re expanding support for translating such research discoveries into therapies that can have a direct and meaningful impact on patients’ lives,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, the George and Carol Bauer Endowed Dean of the School of Medicine, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “Our collaboration with Eisai enhances our bench-to-bedside drug discovery pipeline for neurodegenerative conditions.”

The strategic collaboration brings together Washington University’s extensive expertise in research focused on neurodegenerative diseases, with Eisai’s broad experience in drug discovery. Over the next five years, the aim is to create multiple novel therapeutic candidates and identify novel biomarkers of neurodegeneration.

The Eisai collaboration is part of the School of Medicine’s effort to pivot toward drug development while also maintaining its distinction as a neuroscience research powerhouse. To bolster its drug discovery and research endeavors in the neurosciences, the School of Medicine has made a $616 million investment in a new neuroscience research building, slated to open in 2023. The building, among the largest in the country dedicated to neuroscience research, is under construction on the Washington University Medical Campus, adjacent to the Cortex Innovation Community – one of the fastest-growing business, innovation and technology hubs in the United States and home to numerous biotech startups. The new building represents an important step toward positioning Washington University and the St. Louis area as leaders in therapeutic development for neurological conditions and a magnet for drug discovery alliances with pharmaceutical companies such as Eisai.

“Patients living with neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, struggle with critical unmet medical needs, which is the reason neurology is a key therapeutic area for Eisai,” said Teiji Kimura, officer of the Academia and Industry Alliance Department in the Deep Human Biology Learning Office of Eisai. “By collaborating with world-leading research institutions such as Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Eisai is working to fulfill our human health-care mission and provide potential new and targeted disease-modifying therapies, with the ultimate goal of achieving a world free of neurodegenerative disease.”

Neurodegeneration occurs when cells in the nervous system stop working or die. Most neurodegenerative conditions — such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and multiple sclerosis (MS) — are devastating illnesses that worsen over time and have no cure. But neurodegeneration also plays a role in conditions such as epilepsy – when repeated seizures cause the death of some neurons in the brain – and spinal cord injuries – when an initial trauma triggers a cascade of biological changes that cause progressive damage to spinal cord neurons.

Alzheimer’s will be a major area of focus for the new drug discovery collaboration. Washington University is renowned globally for its research efforts to understand the pathology of the disease and conduct clinical trials of investigational Alzheimer’s drugs. Among other accomplishments, Washington University researchers lead the international Knight Family Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer Network Trials Unit (Knight Family DIAN-TU), which launched the world’s first Alzheimer’s prevention trial in 2012 to evaluate whether drugs targeting the Alzheimer’s protein amyloid beta can slow or prevent the onset of dementia in people genetically predisposed to develop the disease at a young age. Last year, the trial was expanded to evaluate drugs targeting another protein, tau — closely associated with neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s — alongside anti-amyloid drugs.

Participants in the trial’s experimental group are receiving a combination of two investigational drugs made by Eisai — the tau drug E2814 and the amyloid drug lecanemab. “Eisai and Washington University have a long history of shared goals to develop better treatments for patients with Alzheimer’s disease,” said Randall J. Bateman, MD, the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Distinguished Professor of Neurology and director of the DIAN-TU trials. Bateman initiated the collaboration between Washington University and Eisai.

Lecanemab is one of the most promising investigational Alzheimer’s therapies. In September, Eisai announced the results of a separate clinical trial showing that lecanemab slowed memory loss and cognitive decline by 27% in people with mild cognitive impairment or mild dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease. Known as Clarity AD, the trial was conducted at sites in Japan, Europe, China and the U.S., including at Washington University.

The collaboration also creates an opportunity to build on Eisai’s and Washington University’s mutual interest in the science of sleep. Using in-house expertise, Eisai researched and developed Lemborexant, a drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of insomnia. Washington University researchers have been at the forefront of research untangling the role of sleep in Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative conditions.

“Washington University and Eisai have overlapping interests in discovering targets for neurological and neurodegenerative conditions,” said David M. Holtzman, MD, the Barbara Burton and Reuben M. Morriss III Distinguished Professor of Neurology and a driving force behind Washington University’s collaboration with Eisai. “We are both interested in identifying which molecules are driving neurodegeneration, and determining whether they can be targeted for potential therapies, but we each have our own strengths and access to different resources. This promises to be a mutually beneficial collaboration.”

About Washington University School of Medicine

WashU Medicine is a global leader in academic medicine, including biomedical research, patient care and educational programs with 2,700 faculty. Its National Institutes of Health (NIH) research funding portfolio is the fourth largest among U.S. medical schools, has grown 54% in the last five years, and, together with institutional investment, WashU Medicine commits well over $1 billion annually to basic and clinical research innovation and training. Its faculty practice is consistently within the top five in the country, with more than 1,790 faculty physicians practicing at over 60 locations and who are also the medical staffs of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals of BJC HealthCare. WashU Medicine has a storied history in MD/PhD training, recently dedicated $100 million to scholarships and curriculum renewal for its medical students, and is home to top-notch training programs in every medical subspecialty as well as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and audiology and communications sciences.

Tamara covers infectious diseases, molecular microbiology, neurology, neuroscience, surgery, the Institute for Informatics, the Division of Physician-Scientists and the MSTP program. She holds a double bachelor's degree in molecular biophysics & biochemistry and in sociology from Yale University, a master's in public health from the University of California, Berkeley, and a PhD in biomedical science from the University of California, San Diego. She joined WashU Medicine Marketing & Communications in 2016. She has received three Robert G. Fenley writing awards from the American Association of Medical Colleges: a bronze in 2020 for "Mind’s quality control center found in long-ignored brain area," a silver in 2022 for "Mice with hallucination-like behaviors reveal insight into psychotic illness," and a bronze in 2023 for "Race of people given Alzheimer’s blood tests may affect interpretation of results." Since January of 2024, Tamara has been writing under the name Tamara Schneider.