West Coast Editor
With $9.5 million from its first financing, a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study anxiety and a 25-year biotechnology veteran at the helm, Nura Inc. is taking aim at neurodegenerative diseases by targeting G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs).
The money is enough for "beyond two years" of operation, said Seattle-based Nura's CEO Patrick Gray, who was an early scientist at South San Francisco-based Genentech Inc. and was a vice president at ICOS Corp., of Bothell, Wash.
Nura has used high-resolution mapping of the brain along with detailed analysis of behavior to identify 200 GPCRs that apparently play roles in brain function, and the company said it has determined that a number of those receptors regulate key behaviors. The firm is genetically dissecting regions of the brain, including the limbic system, and generating knockout mouse strains, each of which is missing a brain GPCR, in order to link genes to particular disorders.
"There are quite a few drugs for GPCRs," Gray noted. "They represent on the order of 30 percent to 60 percent of the drugs that are on the market," the wide range depending on whether such compounds as the serotonin uptake inhibitors are counted, he said. A handful of targets represent about $8 billion in sales, he added.
Among the GPCR success stories are the blockbusters Zyprexa (olanzapine), from Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co., for schizophrenia and acute bipolar mania, and Clarinex (desloratadine) from Schering-Plough Corp., of Kenilworth, N.J., for allergies.
Although the GPCR class has yielded drugs for other indications - such as regulating blood pressure, asthma, depression, Parkinson's disease, and ulcers - few of the receptors have been targeted for neurological disorders. That's where Nura hopes to find its fortune.
"We believe there's a huge opportunity to come up with new targets and hopefully new drugs" in those indications, Gray said.
The firm was founded in August 2003 by a team of scientists that includes Linda Buck, a former professor at Harvard Medical School but now a Howard Hughes fellow and member at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Buck also is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and has made landmark discoveries in understanding the role of GPCRs in smell and taste.
Nura has 18 employees and "will add some people as we come across new skills that we need," Gray said. "Of course we're shooting for the clinic, so we need clinical skills. I can see those coming on board in about two years."
Another company working in the GPCR space that might come to mind, like Nura, has a Seattle address: Primal Inc., which in the spring of 2003 defined the entire repertoire of those receptors responding to endogenous ligands in humans and mice. The company determined sequences, phylogenetic relationships and expression profiles of what it calls "endoGPCRs," with the findings featured in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (See BioWorld Today, April 17, 2003.)
"Primal died," Gray said. "They started in 2000 and were a platform neurobiology company but they never really got any deals with pharma. I consult for ARCH Venture Partners [which co-led the Series A round], and in that role I heard of Primal, and when they were trying to raise money in 2003, I helped evaluate them for ARCH. [Primal was] looking at liquidating, and some of the scientists whom I'd hit it off with contacted me."
Rather than revive Primal, he said, "we started a brand new company" with more ambitious goals.
"The biggest difference is that we've taken the neurobiology platform they developed, and we're going to use it for drug discovery," Gray said. "What we really want to be at the end of the day is a pharmaceutical company - we want to discover and develop our own drugs."
Nura will "definitely have things in the preclinical area shortly," he told BioWorld Today. "We hope to file an [investigational new drug application] in 2006. That's what we're telling people," he added, acknowledging that the timeline is "very aggressive," while pointing to his extensive background in biotechnology.
After two years, the firm likely will start looking for more cash, Gray said.
"It's a thing I think of every day," he said. "I've spent close to the last year working on the Series A. As George Rathman [former president and CEO of ICOS] always said, as soon as you finish one round, you start working on the next."
The Series A round was led by ARCH, of Seattle, and Zurich, Switzerland-based Aravis, and included investments from Vulcan Capital, of Seattle; Linkagene LP, of San Diego; and the Novartis Venture Fund, of Basel, Switzerland. Venture capitalists Bob Nelsen from ARCH and Michael Kranda from Vulcan will join the board, along with Jean-Philippe Tripet from Aravis.