Nearly 100,000 people in Sweden suffer from Alzheimer’s. Globally, about 30 million people are thought to have the disease. There is still no cure, but research is approaching a point where new drugs may become crucial. AlzeCure is one of the pharmaceutical companies that has made the most progress.
When the 2021 Nobel laureates in medicine were announced, cheers erupted among employees at AlzeCure in Flemingsberg. The recipients of the award were David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, who were praised for their discoveries of receptors that help to feel different temperatures and even touch. One of them has been named TRPV1 and it is activated by temperatures that are experienced as pain.
The reason for the celebrations was that AlzeCure is among a handful of companies in the world that develop drugs that target the TRPV1 receptor. The goal is to help people who suffer from nerve pain. In many cases today, there is no other effective treatment available than opioids, which both numb the whole body and can lead to addiction and substance abuse.
“More than 600 million people in the world suffer from neuropathic pain and 80% of those who receive treatment do not receive satisfactory relief from their first choice of treatment,” says Martin Jönsson, CEO of AlzeCure.
“There are currently no dedicated preparations in the form of TRPV1 antagonists that act on the TRPV1 receptor. We are one of two companies I know that have successfully developed molecules that are now in clinical trials.”
An AstraZeneca legacy
The start of AlzeCure followed AstraZeneca’s closure of its CNS operations in Södertälje in 2012. A group of prominent researchers with promising results joined well-known professor Bengt Winblad at Karolinska Institutet, who, with support from the Alzheimer’s Foundation, laid the foundations of AlzeCure.
Ten years later, the company has two drug platforms for the treatment of Alzheimer’s – NeuroRestore and Alzstatin – as well as the Painless platform, for the treatment of neuropathic pain, and a project for pain relief in osteoarthritis.
“Time has certainly flown by, and I’m fascinated by how much we’ve achieved. The key has been a well put together team in which everyone wants to make a difference,” says Jönsson.
The researchers who were involved in the founding of the company had, among other things, searched for certain types of molecules that could affect neurotrophin signalling and stimulate nerve cells to strengthen memory and cognition. While they were doing this, they found molecules that could do the opposite, that is, reduce or block signals.
“In practice, it’s two sides of the same coin. As a result, we now have methods to either increase the effect of nerve signals or block signalling. I’m proud that we’ve managed to go all the way from finding the right molecules, developing them, testing them in animal models, and then taking the step to testing them in humans,” he says.
Jönsson has an international trajectory to his career, mainly at pharmaceutical company Ferring Pharmaceuticals and Roche. Moving to small development company AlzeCure still felt like a natural step when he took the helm as CEO in 2020.
“My previous career has allowed me to choose things that I’m passionate about. And I want to work in a place where the team and I can make a difference. As long as I have a roof over my head, a pair of running shoes, an interesting job and proximity to my family, then I’m happy,” he says.
He started his career as a young officer in the Swedish air force, where he was struck by the diversity of those in uniform.
“We tend to spend time in groups of people who are similar to ourselves. But leading groups with people from different backgrounds means that you have to find a way to interact and communicate with a message that builds trust. You need to make sure you are clear and find a balance between being liked and making people understand that you are serious about your ambitions as a leader.”
He left the pharmaceutical industry for a time but returned when he missed the knowledge environment and surrounding himself with people who constantly wanted to learn more.
“I’m so impressed by my colleagues at AlzeCure. I’ve rarely worked with more dedicated and professional people who really want to make a positive difference.”
Time for a breakthrough
Research into Alzheimer’s and other dementia diseases has now reached such a point that it is time for a breakthrough, he says.
“We can identify different types of dementia and have become much better at diagnosing the disease. Today, we can give earlier diagnoses with the help of a standard blood test and digital biomarkers are also being developed using sensors that can measure various forms of body movements, including sleep quality. We’ve built up sufficient knowledge to achieve breakthroughs.”
Given the ageing population of the world, a breakthrough is longed for. Alzheimer’s is described as one of the world’s most expensive diseases and the social costs associated with dementia are higher than that of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
“Sometimes I feel that dementia is not taken seriously enough because it affects the elderly. But everyone who has been in contact with dementia knows that it’s not only the patient that is affected – it’s the relatives, too,” says Jönsson.
Sweden at the cutting-edge
“We have a great advantage in Sweden due to our open attitude towards wanting to share our knowledge which helps us to develop faster. This attitude also promotes innovation and entrepreneurship.”
At the same time, Jönsson wants to see more forums in which to meet and share knowledge.
“It’s time for more national conferences focusing on Alzheimer’s. Naturally, the pandemic has got us into the habit of participating in digital events, but it has also caused fatigue about socialising on screen. The ideal would be to find a balance between the two.”
Text: Magnus Trogen Pahlén. Foto: AlzeCure.