Health IT

Early-stage drug firm Mnemosyne thinks the market is ripe for startups in CNS diseases

Mnemosyne Pharmaceuticals gets its offbeat name from the Greek goddess of memory. It’s fitting because the Providence, Rhode Island startup is hoping to improve memory and cognitive function in patients with neuropsychiatric conditions by modulating a receptor call N-Methyl-D-Aspartate, or more commonly, NMDA. NMDA receptors have long been thought to be the master switches for […]

Mnemosyne Pharmaceuticals gets its offbeat name from the Greek goddess of memory. It’s fitting because the Providence, Rhode Island startup is hoping to improve memory and cognitive function in patients with neuropsychiatric conditions by modulating a receptor call N-Methyl-D-Aspartate, or more commonly, NMDA.

NMDA receptors have long been thought to be the master switches for many cognitive functions, but only recently have researchers discovered that there are actually multiple subtypes of this receptor that control different functions.

“The reason for that is because of where in the brain those receptors are expressed and what they do,” co-founder and CEO Kollol Pal said. “Most of that biology has been worked out, but what hasn’t been worked out is small molecule drugs that can target those receptors.”

So Mnemosyne has made that its job, screening hundreds of compounds with the goal of developing drugs that can modulating those various subtypes to address different neuropsychiatric conditions. It’s starting with NR2B, a subtype that has been associated with schizophrenia.

Pal sees it as an opportunistic market for a few reasons. Big Pharma has largely scaled back its R&D efforts on CNS diseases, he said, building pipelines in this field through in-licensing and acquisitions. Takeda, for example, acquired CNS drug developer Envoy Therapeutics last year for $140 million, and Covidien acquired CNS Therapeutics’ for $100 million. Shire also agreed to pay up to $190 million to license a pre-clinical drug from Heptares Therapeutics last year.

Secondly, some of the drugs on the market are facing patent expiration. Others carry undesirable side effects or just have limited effectiveness. Targeting specific NMDA subtypes should help with those last two points, Pal said.

Pal is an organic chemist by training and has spent his career working in Big Pharma and biotech.  In 2009 he met co-founder Frank Menniti, who spent many years in pharmacology at Pfizer, focusing especially on neuropsychiatric disease. They happened to meet at the right time. Both were looking for their next project, and they hit it off. With a $250,000 investment from the Slater Technology Fund, Mnemosyne was formed in 2010.

It’s just completed a $5.4 million Series A led by Access BridgeGap Ventures that will help it identify its lead product candidate for schizophrenia. There are three symptom domains in schizophrenia: positive symptoms, like hallucinations and voices; negative symptoms, like social withdrawal; and cognitive deficits, like memory problems and the inability to process new information. While antipsychotics are used to treat the positive symptoms, there are still unmet needs in addressing the negative and cognitive symptoms.

That’s where NR2B comes in, Pal said. It facilitates the processing of information to make short and long term memory, so Mnemosyne wants to develop a drug that will activate it. He hopes to identify a lead drug candidate for schizophrenia by the end of the year and, ideally, be able to advance that to the clinic within three and a half years.

There are a lot of factors, though, that will play into that. At the top of mind now is money. Pal said he’s also hoping to raise a $20M Series B by the end of the year to carry the development of the lead candidate through a Phase I clinical trial. “When we talk to investors, they’re aware that competition in this area is actually very favorable for a startup right now,” he said.

Thus, there are several others working on CNS drugs, including Chicago’s NeuroTherapeutics Pharma, Milwaukee-based Promentis Pharmaceuticals and NeurOp, which also targets NMDA receptors. Market research firms have predicted a dip in sales of CNS drugs between 2011 and 2015, followed by a rebound as therapies in late-stage development are expected to reach the market.

Pal said he hopes to land a development partnership with a pharmaceutical company within the next 12 to 18 months. Mnemosyne plans to extend its NMDA receptor subtype modulation approach to address other diseases including depression, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, traumatic brain injury and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

[Photo from theoi.com]