Stevin Zorn is CEO, president and co-founder of MindImmune Therapeutics Inc., a drug discovery company launched to develop new treatments for Alzheimer’s and other central nervous system diseases through a novel approach that targets the immune system.
In June, the South Kingstown company, which partners with the University of Rhode Island’s George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience, closed on $12.5 million in Series A financing, drawing from a pool of investors, including the Slater Technology Fund’s RightHill Ventures, the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, Dolby Family Ventures, Trend Venture, Pfizer Ventures and other private investors.
PBN: How did MindImmune Therapeutics get started?
ZORN: MindImmune’s founders – Bob Nelson, Frank Menniti and I – first worked together in the early 1990s in central nervous system discovery at Pfizer [Inc.], across the Rhode Island border in Groton, Conn. There, we gained considerable experience in drug discovery and development, playing roles all the way from generating new ideas to clinical development.
Post-Pfizer, Bob and I joined the U.S. site in New Jersey of Danish-based H. Lundbeck S/A to start an industry-first program investigating therapeutic opportunities at the intersection of the nervous system and the immune system. At the same time, Frank founded a Slater-funded, Providence-based biotech, Mnemosyne Pharmaceuticals.
In 2016, when Lundbeck pulled all research back to Denmark and Mnemosyne moved to [Cambridge, Mass., as part of an acquisition] … we got back together and, again with Slater support, founded MindImmune.
PBN: What prompted the MindImmune team to focus on treatment involving the immune system?
ZORN: Traditionally, immunology and neuroscience have been treated as distinct scientific fields and as distinct, siloed areas for therapeutic development by pharma. Newly discovered genetic connections between the immune and nervous systems have turned this old bias on its head, especially for CNS diseases such as Alzheimer’s, but the genetics alone don’t tell us how best to target those diseases. The complementary talents and experience of the MindImmune founders have provided much synergy in navigating these uncharted waters.
PBN: What is unique about MindImmune’s approach to developing treatments for central nervous system disorders?
ZORN: We’ve been able to connect the dots between new genetics and established disease biology to discover a novel and compelling immune system target for Alzheimer’s. Equally important, we’ve been able to successfully connect the dots between new science and the treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and secure a syndicate of investors to support our pioneering work.
PBN: What are some key findings you have come across so far in MindImmune’s research?
ZORN: In Alzheimer’s disease, there are well-known pathological processes that are observed in post-mortem brain tissue, including the accumulation of amyloid plaques and tangles of a protein called tau. Therapeutic development for Alzheimer’s has been centered around the idea that there is something about these pathologies that is directly damaging brain cells to cause the cognitive symptoms and long-term decline.
Studies that we have done at our lab at URI indicate that, instead, the bad actor is a particular type of immune cell that is recruited into the brain in response to these pathologies, and that these immune cells are causing the fundamental damage. Knowing what these cells are, we’ve devised a means to prevent them from getting from blood into the brain and doing bad things. We are now developing this therapeutic approach, which we hope will “nip Alzheimer’s disease in the blood.”
PBN: What are the next steps for MindImmune’s flagship Alzheimer’s treatment?
ZORN: First, to advance a clinical candidate directly aiming to block the damage caused by these peripheral immune cells, and second, to measure the recruitment of these damaging immune cells into brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. These latter novel biomarker studies are designed to measure the amount of peripheral immune cells that are recruited into the CNS in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as potentially serve as a biomarker of neuroinflammation in patients afflicted with Alzheimer’s. This could help the broader R&D [research and development] community, as well as MindImmune’s internal program.
Jacquelyn Voghel is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Voghel@PBN.com.
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