This year is shaping up to be a big one for neuroscience, with new drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, migraine, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease reaching the market to succeed medicines that in some cases are decades old. But look closer and the wins come with caveats. The schizophrenia therapy is a combination product whose antipsychotic component still poses serious side effect risks. As for Alzheimer’s drug Adhuhelm, its mixed clinical trials record is stymying prescription decisions and insurance coverage despite the therapy’s FDA approval.
Paul Berns, co-founder and CEO of startup Neumora Therapeutics, sees some of the challenges of neuro drug development rooted in the clinical trials themselves. Studies have been enrolling people without regard to whether a drug is suited to particular patients, he said. Neumora is answering those questions with technology that analyzes neuroscience data, shaping the way it develops and tests its medicines. Watertown, Massachusetts-based Neumora has been quietly refining its technology and building its drug pipeline for the past two years. On Thursday, it emerged from stealth with $500 million in financing and a brain disease partnership with Amgen.
Neumora benefits from the explosion of data in healthcare in recent years. John Reynders, the startup’s said chief data sciences officer, said the startup analyzes a wide array of data, spanning genomics, imaging, electroencephalograms, and clinical trials. The company’s technology maps the mechanisms of brain diseases and identifies subgroups of people that could be responsive to a therapy. With that information, the technology can match patient groups to targeted therapies.
Lori Lyons-Williams, Neumora’s president and chief operating officer, said that enrolling clinical trial participants who are more similar than different increases the probability of a study’s success, produces more compelling data, and leads to better patient outcomes. The Neumora technology also aids in drug discovery by helping the company discover new disease targets associated with certain groups of patients.
The new capital that Neumora has raised breaks down to a $400 million Series A round of funding and a $100 million equity investment from Amgen. The total is a staggering amount for any company, but Neumora is a bit further along than the typical biotech coming out of stealth. Formed in 2019, Neumora today includes three other firms that were acquired in deals that all closed on the same day last September, Berns said. Those companies brought with them their technologies and their drug candidates. One of those acquisitions was BlackThorn Therapeutics, a startup that spun out of the Scripps Research Institute in 2013 aiming to apply computational tools to psychiatric drug research.
In addition to the shared approach to neuroscience, BlackThorn and Neumora shared financial backers. ARCH Venture Partners invested in both; Berns, a managing director at the firm was executive chair of BlackThorn. Neumora is now developing drugs for neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders within a single company. Lyons-Williams said that while those two areas of research have historically been classified as separate, the company believes their biological similarities can drive progress on both fronts. For example, trouble sleeping is feature of Parkinson’s disease and other disorders. Insights drawn from a Neumora sleep disorder drug that is on track to reach the clinic next year could inform the company’s other programs, Lyons-Williams said.
“We are focused on what we can learn in one study that we then apply to the next study,” she said. “There’s this constant learning loop.”
That learning will be aided by deCODE Genetics, an Amgen subsidiary subsidiary. According to terms of the collaboration agreement, the partners will apply the Neumora technology to insights from deCODE, a company that Amgen acquired in 2012 for its genetics technology that identifies and validates disease targets in patient subgroups. In addition to the $100 million equity investment, Neumora also receives from Amgen two preclinical neurodegenerative disease drug candidates. Berns said that ARCH and Amgen have had ongoing discussions about central nervous system drug development, and given the advances in computational tools and technology, they were convinced that now is the time to do a partnership.
Of the eight programs in Neumora’s drug pipeline, three were discovered by the company’s technology. While the other five came to the company through deals, Neumora does not plan to apply its technology to older drugs or drugs that previously failed clinical studies. Berns acknowledged that the company’s technology gives it the capability to do so, but it can’t fix problems of older drugs such as their adverse event profiles. Even if the Neumora technology identified patients that best respond to treatment, the side effect problems would remain.
“We’re interested in taking our platform in advancing forward new pharmaceutical products of interest against novel targets,” Berns said.
The most advanced Neumora program is a drug in Phase 2 testing for major depressive disorder. The other clinical-stage program is an anxiety drug in Phase 1 testing. In addition to supporting the eight programs, the new capital also enables the company to pursue more drug discovery research. Berns estimates that the Series A cash will last about two years. The new financing was led by ARCH. Other disclosed investors include Alexandria Venture Investments, Altitude Life Science Ventures, Catalio Capital Management, F-Prime Capital, Invus, Logos Capital, Mubadala Capital, Newpath Partners, Polaris Partners, re.Mind Capital, Softbank Vision Fund, Surveyor Capital, Waycross Ventures.
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