BY LINDA BAKER
Multiple sclerosis is an immune disorder in which the body mistakenly attacks the myelin sheath surrounding nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. The resulting neurological symptoms can range from numbness and tingling to paralysis. Although existing therapies reduce inflammation caused by MS, researchers have long sought to develop a therapy that will actually repair the neurological damage.
Enter Artielle ImmunoTherapeutics, a Portland biotech company that will launch an FDA phase-two clinical trial this year for a new therapy researchers say appears to also reverse the dysregulation of the immune system associated with MS and promotes nerve regeneration. The company takes its name from a phonetic rendering of its proprietary technology — recombinant T-cell receptor ligands.
“There is recovery from the disease,” says Arthur Vandenbark, a founding Artielle scientist and a neurology researcher affiliated with the Portland VA Medical Center and Oregon Health & Science University. “That’s what’s so exciting.” The phase-two trial is considered a critical milestone, as it will show the drug can work in MS patients — and not just in animal models. A phase-one trial, indicating the drug’s safety, was completed a few years ago. According to OHSU’s tech-transfer office, Artielle represents the first OHSU drug discovery to be commercialized this far in the clinical trial process by a company that was formed and has remained in Oregon.
Oregon can be a tough environment for homegrown biotech companies, which often struggle to locate investment capital. Founded eight years ago, Artielle is one of the success stories. It has raised $25 million of venture capital, including $2 million from Northwest Technology Ventures and Reference Capital Management, both located in Portland, and $11 million from Sanderling Ventures in the Bay Area, where Artielle CEO Peter McWilliams is based.
The phase-two trial is funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs and will help Artielle achieve its next financial goal: a buyout or partnership with a pharmaceutical company to help bring the product to market.
Only one in about 5,000 biotech startups develops a commercial drug, but the Artielle team thinks they have a shot. The market is saturated with purely anti-inflammatory drugs, says McWilliams. But Artielle’s technology goes further. “This is a disease-modifying agent,” he says.