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Biogen Idec takes stake in biotech startup

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 by investing in a Cambridge biotechnology startup.

Biogen on Monday said that it has joined the Cambridge venture capital firm Atlas Venture in a $17 million investment in Ataxion Inc., a year-old company that is seeking a treatment for ataxia, a disease that causes difficulties in walking, speaking, and performing daily activities and can lead to immobility and a reduced lifespan.

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Biogen has the option of buying out other shareholders, including Atlas, and acquiring Ataxion if certain milestones are achieved, although it’s unclear when that might happen.

Other terms of the deal were not disclosed.

For Biogen, the deal marks the first time in the past few years that it has become involved at the very early stages of a startup, said Steven Holtzman, Biogen’s executive vice president of corporate development.

Ataxion aims to develop a drug that will improve the functioning of the cerebellum, the brain’s coordination center, and thus restore motor function and coordination to patients with ataxia.

Many ataxia patients end up in a wheelchair or confined to 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 gotten little attention from drug makers because it’s relatively rare and the population of potential patients is small, 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 more than two decades, Cambridge-based 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.

The company, however, has in recent years expanded into developing 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.

Biogen Idec employs about 3,000 people in Massachusetts and 7,000 worldwide.

Ataxion, which was launched by Atlas Venture a year ago, acquired the ataxia drug program from the Danish biotech firm Aniona, now renamed Saniona, in July 2013. Ataxion has two full-time employees, 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 Saniona.

Kyle Alspach can be reached at Kyle.Alspach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylealspach and at betaboston.com.
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