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(Bloomberg) -- Roche Holding AG is seeking a partner with experimental drugs that might help repair the damage caused to the nervous system by multiple sclerosis -- considered a key step in managing the debilitating disease.

The Swiss drugmaker wants to find “compelling science” in what’s called remyelination, or repairing the protective sheath around nerve cells, according to Sanjay Keswani, the Basel-based head of neuroscience, opthalmology and rare diseases at Roche’s pharma research and early development group. Roche also has its own portfolio of experimental remyelination compounds, though none have reached human trials.

The world’s biggest maker of cancer therapies aims to expand its portfolio of multiple sclerosis treatments to tap into a market that’s projected to grow to $24 billion by 2020. Roche won its foothold in March, when it won U.S. approval for Ocrevus, a potential blockbuster that’s likely to be the only option for patients with a particular form of MS. In remyelination, Roche will have to catch up with Biogen Inc., which is already conducting human tests on its drug candidate.

“Frankly, we are currently looking at everything,” Keswani said in an interview on Tuesday. “What’s important for us is something that gets across the blood-brain barrier” and thus ensures a high concentration of the potential drug gets into the central nervous system, he said.

Biogen’s Lead

Biogen told analysts last month that it plans to start testing its compound opicinumab for remyelination in a mid-stage trial toward the end of the year. Other companies with remyelination projects that have leaped the hurdle from lab to human testing include U.S. biotech Acorda Therapeutics Inc., which has said it will seek a partner after test results later this year.

Roche in 2014 entered into a partnership with Inception Sciences Inc. and Versant Ventures to find and develop remyelination therapies.

More than 400,000 people in the U.S. have multiple sclerosis. So far, there’s no therapy to reverse the harm caused by the disease, in which the immune system attacks the myelin sheath surrounding neurons. The resulting damage robs patients of their ability to control their movements. Global sales of branded MS medicines could reach $24 billion in 2020, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.

European regulators are reviewing Roche’s Ocrevus, the drugmaker’s first MS treatment, and may make a recommendation on its use later this year, BI estimates. Global sales of the medicine may reach $2.8 billion in 2020, according to the average of analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

To contact the reporter on this story: Naomi Kresge in Berlin at nkresge@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chitra Somayaji at csomayaji@bloomberg.net, Phil Serafino

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

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