Atlas Startup, Rodin, Hopes to Rewire Neurons to Improve Memory
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serve as a conduit for J&J to gain access to early-stage innovation projects. As part of it, Marian Nakada, the vice president of Johnson & Johnson Development Corp., joined Rodin’s board of directors. And Jeffrey Nye, the central nervous system (CNS) therapeutics lead for the Boston Innovation Center, is a core member of Rodin’s scientific advisory board. Nye and Nakada have also been actively involved in helping Rodin both structure its initial seed financing and develop the company’s drug discovery plan and business approach.
“They moved quick, they were nimble, and they shared our entrepreneurial view of how to build a company,” Booth says.
The financing Rodin has secured, meanwhile, is structured as a set of tranches that get the company from early drug discovery to an investigational new drug application—which will likely take a few years. The first tranche gives Rodin about 12 months of financial leeway, at which point it hopes to hit an unspecified drug discovery milestone and have enough momentum to recruit a full-time CEO. The second tranche would then kick in, and help Rodin get to the point of having a molecule ready for clinical development.
Once Rodin’s first drug candidate is ready to hit the clinic, Booth expects that there would be a Series B round that would get the compound through a Phase 2 human proof-of-concept study. Rodin is considering a range of potential disease targets for that drug, such as cognitive impairment from Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia. The first drug would be a “nucleating program” to give the company enough juice to start up other programs and build a pipeline, Booth says.
Of course, those are all projections as this point—Rodin is in its infancy. It’s only in the discovery phase, and essentially consists of a team of Rodin executives and Proteros and J&J scientists. The company at this stage is essentially all about testing a series of concepts, so it can figure out which ones are best to prove. One big concept Rodin seeks to test is about whether epigenetic approaches can be used to reprogram a neuron to regain some of its ability to function and do things such as form new synapses.
“Those are parts of the CNS biology that can be affected through epigenetic mechanisms,” Booth says. “Frankly, a lot of the neurotransmitter-based mechanisms are unlikely to do [that].”
In Alzheimer’s, Rodin has some quite unorthodox strategies in mind. It doesn’t plan to try to fight off the buildup of amyloid plaques, or changed levels of Tau in cerebrospinal fluid—two popular methods of Alzheimer’s research that target what are believed to be major contributors to the disease. Rather, it hopes to create a drug that gives patients “an extra five or 10 years of functionally normal cognitive levels,” Booth says.
“It’s not just about holding their cognition flat—we’d like to see improvements in cognition, and that’s our aspiration,” Booth says. “In preclinical models, these types of mechanisms have shown that, where you can take animals who have functional cognitive impairment and by treating them with these types of approaches, you can actually improve their cognitive performance.”
This type of goal in Alzheimer’s brings to mind Watertown, MA-based startup Envivo Pharmaceuticals. Envivo is developing EVP-6124, a so-called alpha 7 nicotinic agonist that is supposed to boost transmission between synapses in the brain and thus, improve cognition. Booth says the epigenetic drug Rodin envisions could be used in combination with that type of drug, or palliative treatments like Pfizer and Eisai Pharmaceuticals’ donepezil (Aricept), since it uses a different mechanism to try to help rewire neurons to improve memory.
For Atlas, meanwhile, Rodin represents a bet on neurology at a time when Big Pharma, stung by failure, is shying away. Atlas recently started up Providence, RI-based Mnemosyne Pharmaceuticals, and has two other companies that it is currently in the process of seeding. One is named Ataxion, and the other, unnamed as of yet, is targeting Parkinson’s.
“A lot of Big Pharma have deprioritized CNS, and in some ways that creates a great opportunity,” Booth says. “We should be starting [these companies] early now so that in four to five years, we can have interesting clinical data at a time when larger pharmaceutical companies may be wanting to come back into the space.”