By Zoë Leanza

In May 2020, a group of students from the University of Arizona launched a biotechnology start-up called Cliacept (CLEE-a-cept). Cliacept is working to develop an effective and affordable treatment for Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

Cliacept is pursuing a protein called chloride intracellular channel 1 (CLIC1) which is elevated in parts of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s. CLIC1 is a potential biomarker and target that could lead to earlier diagnosis, earlier treatment, and a better prognosis.

“We want to test for Alzheimer’s in an earlier stage – and design a pharmaceutical product to delay further progression of the disease,” said CEO Jaesa Strong. Strong postponed her post-graduation plans for pharmacy school to lead Cliacept, testing antibodies, seeking partnerships, and securing $36,000 in funding for the start-up.

Student CEO Jaesa Strong, smiling in a long sleeved black shirt in front of a sunny building at the University of Arizona

CEO Jaesa Strong

Much of that support arose from the Spring 2020 Pharmacology course “Designing Drugs: From Chemistry to Cure.” The 20 participating students explored a list of early stage drug targets hosted on Agora, an interactive AD visualization tool. Developed in part by AD researchers from the National Institute on Aging’s Accelerating Medicines Partnership in Alzheimer’s Disease (AMP-AD) consortium, Agora is an integral component of Cliacept’s inception. 

Course instructor Dr. May Khanna guided students through the drug development process from target nomination to marketing pharmaceuticals. She provided the class with real-world experience, offering opportunities for transdisciplinary collaboration and mentorship for the resulting start-up. 

Dr. Khanna describes Cliacept as “an exciting venture, fueled by brilliant, passionate young minds focused on the development of Alzheimer’s therapeutics.”

The company is primarily led by women of color, a rarity among biotech companies. Strong considers this an asset and one of Cliacept’s most important values. “Bringing minority representation into the research realm is essential, and it has always been a big goal of mine,” she said.

Cliacept is defying industry norms, researching an understudied target, and transforming a semester-long project into a potentially marketable drug. Strong said the challenge is monumental. “It’s the most amount of work I’ve ever spent on a two credit course – and we’re just getting started.”

More about Cliacept: Cliacept collaborates with Tech Launch Arizona, Center for Innovation in Brain Science (CIBS), the University of Arizona, Sage Bionetworks, and the National Institute on Aging’s Accelerating Medicines Partnership in Alzheimer’s Disease (AMP-AD) consortium. For more information, visit Cliacept’s LinkedIn page.