Research Engine

Pfizer backs research platform of MindImmune

MindImmune, a for-profit drug discovery firm embedded at URI’s George and Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience, is focused on targeting the pathologic process of neuroinflammation to treat disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease

Phot by Richard Asinof

The co-founders of MindImmune, from left: Brian Campbell, Ph.D., vice president of Pharmacology; Stevin Zorn, Ph.D., president and CEO; Frank Menniti, Ph.D., chief science officer; and Robert Nelson, Ph.D., vice president of Exploratory Biology.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/22/18
The new collaborative research partnership and investment by Pfizer in MindImmune, a drug discovery research firm embedded at URI, speaks to the validity of the research platform that MindImmune is pursuing. It also provides a potential glimpse of the research paradigm that could be established as part of an Innovation Campus in Rhode Island.
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KINGSTON – MindImmune Therapeutics, Inc., a privately held drug discovery firm that is pioneering a new approach to the treatment of neurodegenerative disease, announced on Monday, Jan. 22, that it had reached a new research agreement with Pfizer, Inc.

The research will study a previously unrecognized role for peripheral immune cells, targeting the pathologic process of neuroinflammation to treat neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition to the research collaboration, Pfizer has also decided to invest an undisclosed amount in MindImmune through Pfizer’s Emerging Technologies Fund, according to Stevin Zorn, Ph.D., president and CEO of MindImmune.

“We are delighted to have the support of Pfizer as we operationalize our unique immune cell platform, which we expect can help enable new therapies that have the potential to prevent damage to the brain,” Zorn said in the news release. “This strategy has the potential to identify fundamentally new avenues of attack on diseases that have proven intractable to established paradigms in drug discovery research.”

New approach to academic research collaboration
The collaboration and investment by Pfizer builds upon MindImmune’s efforts to construct a unique academic research platform in collaboration with URI.

In 2016, MindImmune created a unique research platform, enabling the for-profit firm to locate itself on the URI campus, building a collaborative research hub with the university’s growing scholarship in biology, pharmacology and neuroscience. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “To go where no research enterprise has gone before in Rhode-Island.”]

The MOU between MindImmune and URI was the first of its kind in Rhode Island, according to both Zorn and Paula Grammas, Ph.D., the inaugural director of the George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience.

In turn, each of the four founding members of MindImmune’s scientific team – Zorn; Brian Campbell, Ph.D., vice president of Pharmacology; Frank Menniti, Ph.D., chief science officer; and Robert Nelson, Ph.D., vice president of Exploratory Biology – had been appointed as research faculty at the Ryan Institute.

A key catalyst in this convergence was an initial seed investment by the Slater Technology Fund for $500,000 in 2016.

Five months ago, on Aug. 21, 2017, Slater announced an additional $250,000 investment, which was coupled with an additional $250,000 investment from private sources. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Entering a new Rhode Island state of mind.”]

“MindImmune brings together a team of world-class drug discovery scientists pioneering a fundamentally new approach to the treatment of neurodegenerative disease,” said Richard G. Horan, senior managing director of the Slater Technology Fund, in the news release announcing the August 2017 investment.

As a result, MindImmune was positioned to begin raising money for a Series A equity round of financing, a top priority for 2018.

In the news release announcing the new Pfizer research collaboration and investment, Zorn cited a recent Nature Genetics research paper published in 2017, by a consortium of geneticists, validating the hypothesis that there is immune system dysfunction involved with the causation of Alzheimer’s and related disorders, a fundamental premise upon which the MindImmune drug discovery research is based.

“These genetic findings provide additional evidence that the microglia-mediated [immune cell] innate immune response contributes directly to the development of Alzheimer’s disease,” according to the paper.

The Pfizer connection
Zorn, in a recent conversation with ConvergenceRI, explained that MindImmune had begun talks with numerous companies, including Pfizer, as part of its efforts around potential Series A equity investments.

“Pfizer was very interested in our hypotheses about a variety of illnesses,” Zorn said. “We’ve been talking with them for a while.” Our work, he continued, “fit so nicely [together], we discussed a research collaboration, and they discussed making an investment. It worked out perfectly on both ends.”

The decision by Pfizer to invest in MindImmnue through its Emerging Technologies Fund followed the recent decision by Pfizer, announced in early January, to end its current research platform into drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, following an internal review, according to Pfizer.

Zorn declined to make any comment to ConvergenceRI about whether or not the decision had any relationship to the MindImmune investment, citing confidentiality agreements and suggesting that ConvergenceRI contact Pfizer directly.

Pfizer’s rationale
In a Jan 11 letter, Dr. Mikael Dolsten, president of Pfizer Worldwide Research and Development, explained the rationale behind its decision to curtail its current drug research platforms:

“Our recent announcement to end our discovery and early clinical development efforts in neuroscience has been an extremely difficult decision and one that we have not taken lightly,” Dolsten said. “We recognize the immense disappointment in the broader community, and we share this; at a personal level, many of us have seen first-hand the devastation of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. More than anything, we wanted to succeed in finding a meaningful therapy.”

Dolsten continued: “Pfizer scientists have worked for decades to advance potential therapies for these devastating diseases. Their dedication to find meaningful therapies for patients has been unwavering – for some, finding a potential cure has been their life’s work. And their efforts have vastly contributed to the broad scientific understanding of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. However, after our internal programs faced continual setbacks, we had to come to terms with the fact that our research efforts were simply not making the progress necessary to translate into truly transformational therapies for patients.”

Dolsten said Pfizer’s decision was driven by science; not cost. “As the fourth largest investor in pharmaceutical research and development worldwide, we expect limited impact, if any, to our overall investment in R&D as a result of this decision.”

Further, Dolsten said that while Pfizer’s efforts were not successful [in its current research platforms for central nervous system disease], “we have full faith in the broader scientific community that meaningful therapies can and will be discovered in the long-term. That is why Pfizer plans to create a venture fund, with the specific goal of investing in biotech companies conducting promising neuroscience research, particularly in areas of unmet need. Although it is humbling to admit, we believe that supporting others who are making greater strides in breaking the neuroscience code is the best way that we can make a difference.”

Innovation Campus hub prospects
The Slater Technology Fund, the original seed investor in MindImmune, was one of some 30 entities that submitted proposals in September of 2017 as part of an initial expression of interest in the Innovation Campus initiative being underwritten by $20 million in state bonds approved by voters in November of 2016, according to Slater’s Horan.

“In our case, we [expressed interest] that focused on creating a center for therapeutic discovery, with the potential initially for a facility located at the URI campus, modeled on the paradigm that MindImmune has struck with the Ryan Insitute,” Horan told ConvergenceRI.

MindImmune and the Ryan Institute, Horan continued, “would be a solid platform from which to launch such a program.”

CommerceRI issued an RFP on Dec. 16, 2017, with proposals due on March 2, 2018. The goal of the Innovation Campus initiative is to propel a new kind of collaborative research engine in Rhode Island, marrying the state’s world-class research and academic talent to commercial enterprise investment.

The current schedule is to announce the grant award winners either in the spring or summer of 2018, with final contracts signed in the summer of 2018, according to the RFP. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “The next generation of innovation campuses in RI.”]

Zorn said that MindImmune was interested in participating in such an innovation campus, citing the example of the Stanford Innovation Center in California. “If you bring people with disparate experiences together, you start to get synergies that you don’t expect to happen,” he told ConvergenceRI.

The role of inflammation in disease
Research into the role that inflammation plays in disease and its relationship to the body’s immune system and the brain’s immune system is a hot topic, both nationally and here in Rhode Island.

Researchers at Brown University, for instance, found that an enzyme called SRNK suppresses inflammation in obesity-related “white fat” while increasing metabolism in heat-producing “brown fat,” making SRNK an intriguing potential target in the battle against obesity.

“This study suggests that there may be dual benefits if we can find a way to enhance SNRK production in fat tissue,” said Simin Liu, a study co-corresponding author and professor of epidemiology in Brown’s School of Public Health and professor of medicine at the Alpert School of Medicine, as reported in an article by Brown University.

Liu continued: “Reducing inflammation in white fat may ease associated complications such as insulin resistance, while at the same time, increasing brown fat metabolism may aid in weight loss. Those possibilities will need to be followed up in further studies in humans.”

The connection between inflammation and immune responses has emerged as an important part of the research equation. For example, EpiVax has emerged as a global leader in the fields of immune engineering and vaccine design, using screening tools known as immuno-informatics to design and optimize therapeutic proteins and vaccines. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below, “EpiVax leads a sea change in vaccine design.”]

Creating a convergent conversation
Was there interest in bringing together researchers in Rhode Island to talk about potential convergence in the areas of immunology and inflammation? Or, would it be a distraction?

Zorn responded by saying: “It would be a great idea to bring the various researchers together to discuss this emerging topic and to create opportunities for synergies and to publicize the various key components of research in this area that are ongoing in and near Rhode Island.”

Zorn did not think it would be a distraction, but noted that inflammation, immunology, immune response and neuroinflammation were very different areas, although there was much overlap.

Dr. Annie De Groot, CEO and CSO at EpiVax, responded: “If you wish to do that, sounds good, however we’re on the immunology side of inflammation, looks as if [the researchers at Brown working on the SRNK enzyme] are on the gene-modulating side of inflammation. Two different approaches.”

Dr. Jim Padbury, chief of Pediatrics at Women & Infants Hospital, the William and Mary Oh/William and Elsa Zopfi Professor of Pediatrics for Perinatal Research at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University, and principal investigator for the Advance Clinical and Translational Research program, responded by saying: “It’s a very popular research area I believe that Alfred Ayala is already hosting an annual symposium on inflammation without speaking to immunity. Would reach out to him, I have almost no bandwidth left!”

Stay tuned.

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