GlaxoSmithKline’s venture- capital fund is seeking to invest in a biotechnology company that has both a brain-imaging dye to detect warning signs for Alzheimer’s disease and a drug treatment for the ailment.

“The big change will come with imaging agents,” Jens Eckstein, president of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based SR One fund, said in a webcam interview. “We’re really interested in that area.”

Imaging agents detect proteins called amyloid that define the disease. The illness can be identified at an early stage through routine scanning if started when patients are still healthy, Eckstein said. Recent studies of treatments to slow or stop progression of Alzheimer’s were flawed as they recruited patients with advanced forms of the disease, where “70 percent of the damage was already done,” he said.

The comments show Glaxo (NYSE: GSK) isn’t giving up on Alzheimer’s disease after recent high-profile failures of experimental treatments. Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer Inc.’s bapineuzumab as well as Eli Lilly & Co.’s solanezumab failed to help Alzheimer’s symptoms in people with advanced disease in separate study results announced over the past two months. Still, both target amyloid plaque and showed promise for use in early-stage patients.

“My goal is to find players around the table who have both an imaging approach with a therapeutic approach and have them collaborate really closely,” Eckstein said. “You cannot have one without the other.”

Disease Growth

In a study of 141 healthy subjects, those with clumps of amyloid beta plaques in their brains at the start of the study had as much as a 20 percent greater decline in memory and thinking over an 18-month period than those with fewer plaques. The study, conducted by Australian researchers, was published in the journal Neurology on Oct. 16.

The number of Alzheimer’s cases globally is expected to double within 20 years as the world’s population ages, to as many as 65.7 million people in 2030 and 115 million by 2050, the Geneva- based World Health Organization said in April.

SR One invests in about 30 public and private companies, half of which have compounds in human testing, and invests $30 million to $50 million in five or six companies a year, according to Eckstein.

While Glaxo has “high interest in our portfolio,” the fund acts largely independent of the drugmaker, with a strict firewall between the two entities and no special product rights, he said.

The company’s investments include iPierian Inc., which is developing treatments for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases using induced pluripotent stem cells. Shinya Yamanaka, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine this month for his discovery of iPS cells, sits on iPierian’s scientific advisory board.

 GSK maintains its U.S. headquarters in RTP.

[GSK ARCHIVE: Check out a decade of GSK stories as reported in WRAL Tech Wire.]