Satori Pharmaceuticals has a dream of being the world’s first company to stop the progressive loss of memory and cognition caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Today, Cambridge, MA-based Satori will announce it has raised enough money to put its vision to the test, with $22 million in venture capital to develop drugs that halt the disease in early phases, something no other drug on the market today can claim.
Satori’s new shot of cash comes from some of the top life sciences VC firms, including InterWest Partners, Prospect Venture Partners, and New Enterprise Associates. Boston-based PureTech Ventures, which founded Satori, also participated in the round, along with other existing investors. Satori has hired Jeff Ives, the former head of neurology drug development at Pfizer, to be its CEO. I spoke with Ives by phone yesterday to learn more.
The opportunity for any effective drug against Alzheimer’s is huge, with more than 5 million people in the U.S. alone who suffer from the disease, or about one in eight people over age 65, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The problem is that the best form of therapy on the market, cholinesterase inhibitors like Pfizer’s $2 billion-a-year drug, donepezil (Aricept), basically just slow down the mental decline for a few months before they wear off, Ives says. That class of drugs had its first breakthrough in 1987, and a generation of scientists have struggled ever since to come up with something better that can halt the cognitive damage and decline, or even help the brain restore its memory and thinking capacity.
“We’re pushing for early diagnosis, and we’re looking to stop the progression of the disease,” Ives says. “That’s the end-all.”
A predictable all-star lineup of directors and advisers have flocked to the company, including Bennett Shapiro, a senior partner with PureTech, and a former executive vice president of basic and external research at Merck. “Satori is an extremely exciting and unique opportunity,” Shapiro said in a phone message. “Obviously, Alzheimer’s is a huge unmet need, it’s completely unsolved. Getting a disease-modifying therapeutic is key, and Satori has a unique approach unlike anything I’ve seen before.”
So how exactly does Satori plan to solve this medical mystery? Satori is developing conventional small-molecule chemical drugs that can be safely taken on a chronic basis, Ives says. This family of compounds will be designed to block the production of toxic proteins, in a different way than other drugs designed to block buildup of amyloid proteins that are widely thought to kill brain cells and cause the disease. The company has important collaborations in place with academic researchers who are searching for traces of proteins in the blood that could serve as early warning signs of this toxic buildup. If caught early by one of these diagnostic tests, then a doctor could prescribe the Satori drug to halt the disease, Ives says.
“This would be something where you come in to the doctor with some memory loss that’s more than just about how you forgot where you put the car keys, but you haven’t yet gotten to the point where you can’t remember your daughter’s name,” Ives says.
One of the big challenges will be to make this type of drug extraordinarily safe, Ives says. It will have to be given to patients without a life-threatening condition, on a chronic basis, for probably 20 years per patient. Since patients will start out in their 60s, most will be already taking other medicines for high blood pressure, diabetes, and other chronic conditions of aging. That means the Satori drug will have to be free of drug-drug interactions, he says.
Ives wouldn’t be specific about exactly how far along the work has progressed in animal testing. But he did say the drugs have moved beyond the petri dish—where many other drugs have shown misleading hints of effectiveness—and has cleared more difficult hurdles in animal tests, including one rat study that showed improved memory in navigating a maze, he says. Satori isn’t providing a firm deadline for when it will bring its first drug into clinical trials, but it hopes to do that in 2010, Ives says.
Satori raised its first $3 million in seed funding in 2005, when it was co-founded by Mark Findeis, a former director of chemistry at Praecis Pharmaceuticals. The scientific advisory board includes a panel of top Alzheimer’s researchers, including Dennis Selkoe of Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, Donald Price of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Chris Eckman of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL.
Competition doesn’t sound like a huge concern to Ives. Last year, Salt Lake City-based Myriad Genetics announced its candidate in the final stage of clinical trials, Flurizan, failed. Another contender, Wyeth and Elan’s bapineuzumab, produced disappointing results. One of the most exciting options in the clinical trial pipeline, Medivation’s Dimebon, is an antihistamine developed in Russia, which has shown an intriguing ability to improve memory in patients in that country, but will need to reproduce the effect in the U.S., he says.
Ives, 57, sounded very pumped up when I asked him why he decided to join this startup. He was trained as a chemist at Yale, and spent his entire 30-year career at Pfizer, except for a brief stint at GlaxoSmithKline, he says. When he took early retirement in December 2007, he was senior vice president, in charge of drug metabolism across the Pfizer portfolio of 180 drugs in animal testing and early phases of clinical trials, with a $180 million budget. The work was spread across 11 different disease states. But before he took on that corporate responsibility, he was in charge of central nervous system (CNS) drugs. He says he relishes the chance to focus sharply on promising candidates for one of the biggest health challenges in the country.
“I’m a CNS guy by heart and by training,” Ives says. “I have a chance here to really build something.”