Joshua Resnick is co-founder and chief executive at Ataxion (Photo courtesy of Atlas Venture)
Joshua Resnick is co-founder and chief executive at Ataxion (Photo courtesy of Atlas Venture)

Biogen Idec Inc. is targeting a yet-untreated disease that affects 150,000 Americans while seeking to expand its business of producing drugs for neurological disorders through a deal with a young Cambridge startup.

Cambridge-based Biogen today said it has backed Ataxion, a startup founded a year ago by Cambridge venture capital firm Atlas Venture. Both Biogen and Atlas took part in a $17 million funding deal for the startup, which could also see Ataxion acquired by Biogen if certain milestones are achieved.

For Biogen, the deal with Ataxion marks the first time in the last few years that it has gotten involved on the ground floor with launching a new startup, said Steven Holtzman, Biogen’s executive vice president of corporate development.

The collaboration is aiming to produce a treatment for ataxia, a disease that leads to difficulties with walking, speaking, and performing daily activities at first, but can ultimately lead to immobility and a reduced lifespan. The disease has no approved treatment, said Joshua Resnick, co-founder and chief executive at Ataxion.

The startup hopes to develop a drug that will improve the functioning of the cerebellum, the brain’s coordination center, and in so doing to restore motor function and motor coordination to patients with ataxia.

Many ataxia patients end up bound to a wheelchair or a bed, Resnick said. “It’s the problems that come along with immobility that lead to shortened lifespan, such as malnutrition, blood clots, and pneumonia,” he said.

The disease has both hereditary and sporadically appearing forms. Ataxion is planning to target the hereditary forms initially, but company executives say the startup is the first to pursue a treatment for a broader set of ataxia types, of which there are about 100 in total, Resnick said.

Rare disease

The disease has gotten little attention from drug makers in the past because it’s relatively rare compared to other diseases, said Michael Parent, executive director of the National Ataxia Foundation in Minneapolis. His foundation and its supporters, he said, are “delighted” that Ataxion and other companies are pursuing treatments for the disease.

For more than two decades Biogen has built its business around drugs to treat the neurological disorder multiple sclerosis, including Avonex, Tecfidera, and Tysabri. The MS drugs continue to provide the majority of revenue for Biogen.

However, the company has in recent years expanded into development of drugs for neurodegenerative disorders, among them ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), spinal muscular atrophy, and Parkinson’s disease. Ataxia is the latest neurodegenerative disorder to become a focus for Biogen.

The company will have the option to acquire Ataxion to continue development of the ataxia drug program upon completion of a Phase 1 study. Executives are not saying how soon that could be. Biogen employs 3,000 in Massachusetts and a total of 7,000 worldwide.

Ataxion acquired the ataxia drug program from Danish biotech firm Aniona, now renamed Saniona, in July 2013. Saniona has received equity and will receive royalties on marketed products through the deal.

Ataxion employs two full-time in Cambridge — Resnick and another executive. The research and development for Ataxion’s initial treatment is being contracted to other companies in various locations around the world, including to Saniona.

Ataxion was founded in April 2013 out of the Atlas Venture seed program by Resnick and Atlas Venture Development Corp. managing director David Grayzel.

Biogen can acquire the company at pre-negotiated terms, including upfront and milestone payments, once a Phase 1 multiple ascending dose study is completed. Those terms were not released.

A version of this article appears on page B8 of the Boston Globe on March 18, 2014.

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