One-year-old Galenea Corp. signed a major research and development agreement that will support its central nervous system disease program for five years, as well as double its staff.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based company found its beginnings in 2004 when scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Rockefeller University brought their research under one roof. That technology is enabling Galenea to discover and develop drugs to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other CNS disorders.

In a deal signed last week with Tokyo-based Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., Galenea gained its first equity investment, which will enable it to hire up to 20 scientists.

"It's our first big agreement, and it's quite significant," said John Oyler, Galenea's CEO. "It's quite a large collaboration over five years and will help us get started and build out our team."

In addition to an equity investment, Galenea will receive five years of research and development funding. Otsuka gains rights to a number of Galenea targets and development candidates. The Japanese company will hold an exclusive, worldwide license to further develop and commercialize products identified and developed by Galenea during the collaboration. For those commercialized, Galenea will receive milestone and royalty payments. It also holds an option to participate in profit-sharing.

Oyler could not give further financial details.

"I'm happy and able to say that officially we think it's quite an attractive relationship," he told BioWorld Today. "For them, they have access to some great technologies. And for us, if things are developed out of this, we have a very strong participation in the profitability of those products."

The technology used to develop drugs for CNS disorders came from the laboratories of Susumu Tonegawa and Maria Karayiorgou. Tonegawa is the director of the Picower Center for Learning and Memory at MIT and the recipient of the 1987 Nobel Prize in medicine. He has pioneered the use of genetically modified mice to understand the molecular basis of learning and memory. Karayiorgou is an associate professor and head of the Laboratory of Human Neurogenetics at Rockefeller.

In their laboratories, the two Galenea founders obtained behavioral and genetic evidence indicating that calcineurin dysfunction contributes to schizophrenia pathogenesis. The findings raised the possibility that the calcineurin pathway could be an effective target for the disease.

Galenea's two other founders include David Gerber and Jianzhu Chen. Gerber was a research scientist in Tonegawa's laboratory at MIT. His research focused on the genetic basis of schizophrenia susceptibility, specifically on the involvement of calcineurin dysfunction. Chen, a professor at MIT, conducted research that led to the development of technology for RNA interference of influenza virus infection - another area in which Galenea focuses.

The company is working to develop siRNA-based, inhaled medicines to treat respiratory diseases, such as influenza.

"We are quite far along in what we're doing," Oyler said. "At some point in time, we would love to be talking to folks about partnering for clinical development."

Oyler said the company is not under stringent timelines for getting its first product into the clinic because no traditional venture capitalists have invested in the company at this point.

"I don't know if we're moving with the sense of urgency of other companies and rushing toward an [investigational new drug application]," he said. "I think a lot of other companies have financial pressure. We're taking our time and going about it methodically."

Galenea currently has about 20 employees. The company is named after the Greek physician Galen.

"He's the second most famous Greek physician after Hippocrates," Oyler said, "and some folks think of him as the father of Western medicine."