By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

Cogent Neuroscience Inc. raised $15 million in a private placement in order to expand its ability to screen for genes that protect neurons during stroke.

The Durham, N.C.-based company raised twice as much money as it originally sought three months ago, when it started the financing process. Privately held Cogent intends to use the windfall to rapidly increase staff from approximately 30 to 90 by the end of the year.

¿We¿re fortunate. By applying twice as much effort we can work twice as fast,¿ said Max Wallace, president, CEO and co-founder of Cogent. ¿We are extremely pleased with the levels of support we¿ve received. Part of it¿s a recognition we are in a good sector in the market place. Secondly, we are in another underserved research area ¿ the whole area of the brain, and especially stroke.¿

The financing was lead by Franklin Street Partners, of Chapel Hill, N.C. Also participating were The Wakefield Group and Kitty Hawk Capital, both of Charlotte, N.C.; Aurora Ventures, of Research Triangle Park, N.C.; Cordova Technology Partners, of Atlanta; S.R. One, the venture subsidiary of SmithKline Beecham; and Pacific Rim Ventures and Tri- State Investment Group, both of Chapel Hill.

Cogent was started in October 1998 with $5.5 million in seed money. Housed in an old tobacco research facility in downtown Durham, the company uses a functional genetic approach to discover genes capable of protecting neurons during and after stroke.

When a person suffers a stroke, neurons deprived of oxygen die immediately. As these neurons die they trigger other neurons to die as well, causing the stroke to spread. By the time the average patient enters the emergency room with stroke, neurons have been dying for two days.

Cogent has developed an assay that mimics stroke in slices of rat brain. To this model, the company adds individual expressed human genes and tests them for their ability to prevent neurons from dying.

¿We don¿t even know what genes we are putting into the assays,¿ said Donald Lo, co-founder and chief scientific officer for the company. ¿And, 99.999 percent of these genes won¿t help protect neurons. Once in a while, we happen on a gene that is neuroprotective. When we do, we sequence the gene and, at the end of the day, we have a validated drug target.¿

Lo said by leaving the sequencing as the last part of the process, the company is able to move quickly to validated targets. With a traditional gene sequencing and expression assay approach, Lo maintained the best you can do is determine a gene is somehow associated with a disorder, but not generate a validated target on the spot. ¿It really is remarkably fast,¿ he said. ¿The key is the quality of the assay.¿

Cogent isn¿t confined simply to looking for stroke drugs, Lo pointed out. The company has a similar model to look at neuronal death in the retina. Cogent also is looking for genes that retain or restore the neuronal circuitry of axons and dendrites with an eye to discovering targets for drugs to treat neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson¿s disease and Alzheimer¿s disease.