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Syncona melds two gene therapy biotechs for better shot at new nervous system treatments

Two gene therapy developers backed by Syncona, an investment firm focused on life sciences, are combining to create a new company that will take aim at central nervous system diseases.

Through a deal announced Monday, Freeline Therapeutics is acquiring SwanBio Therapeutics and rebranding the merged entity as Spur Therapeutics. Syncona is providing an additional $50 million to support the new company’s gene therapy research.

Spur is starting with two programs already in human testing. The first, from Freeline, targets Gaucher disease, a metabolic disorder that can sometimes affect the brain. It’s set to enter late-stage development next year. The second, from SwanBio, is currently in a small study of people with an inherited condition that damages nerve cells in the spinal cord and is known as AMN.

Both of those programs target rare conditions. But a key goal for Spur, according to a statement, is to “unlock the promise of gene therapy for more prevalent chronic conditions.” There, the company hopes to develop treatments for Parkinson’s disease and certain cardiovascular illnesses.

“At Spur Therapeutics, our mission is to redefine what gene therapy can do,” company CEO Michael Parini said.

For Syncona, the founding shareholder in both Freeline and SwanBio, that goal is more attainable through the combination of the two companies.

For instance, SwanBio has “capabilities” in CNS disorders that can be leveraged not only against AMN, but for Parkinson’s as well. Spur says it has a Parkinson’s program directed at a subset of patients with mutations in a gene named GBA1 gene — the same gene linked to Gaucher disease. The company expects to select a candidate to progress into preclinical studies sometime this year.

As for its ambitions in the heart, Spur’s initial focus will be on a “severe” subset of patients with chronic heart failure.

“We see great promise across Spur’s broadened pipeline,” said Chris Hollowood, chairman of the company’s board of directors and CEO of Syncona Investment Management Limited. Hollowood will be joined on the board by Syncona Executive Partner and former SwanBio Executive Chair John Tsai, who was previously chief medical officer at Novartis.

The tactic is one that Syncona has used before. Last year, the investment firm took executives and assets from three of its portfolio companies and pieced them together to establish Beacon Therapeutics, a startup dedicated to genetic medicines for eye diseases.

Combining companies may also make sense financially, given how the prolonged downturn in the biotechnology market proved challenging for small genetic medicine developers. The past year alone has seen Graphite Bio, Homology Medicines and Avrobio all agree to reverse mergers.