The available drugs for neurodegenerative conditions like multiple sclerosis (MS) can only treat symptoms, or at best slow the disease’s march forward. But recent research has uncovered a new approach that could potentially address what causes nerves to break down in the first place. Startup Disarm Therapeutics aims to turn that research into new drugs and is launching today with $30 million in funding.
Atlas Venture, the venture capital firm that has incubated Cambridge, MA-based Disarm for the past year, led the Series A financing round.
Disarm is trying to stop the breakdown of axons, the threadlike projections that conduct electrical signals from neurons. When axons degenerate, diseases of the central, ocular, and peripheral nervous systems progress, says Jason Rhodes, a partner at Atlas and the Disarm’s acting CEO. Disarm aims to stop that from happening by using a drug to block an enzyme, SARM1, found to play a role in axonal degeneration.
“That was a fundamental breakthrough in terms of thinking how to treat axonal degeneration because now there’s an enzyme that could be a target,” Rhodes says.
In recent years, research has uncovered that axonal degeneration is a driver of neurodegenerative disease, says Rajesh Devraj, Disarm’s chief scientific officer. But what was less understood was the role of enzymes involved in this degenerative process. Recent research has shown that the breakdown occurs because of a protein called SARM1, Devraj says. In healthy cells, SARM1 is dormant. But disease, injury, or inflammation triggers the release of the protein, which sparks axonal degeneration.
Research about the role of SARM1 in nerve degeneration has been published by the University of Massachusetts and the University of Nottingham. Disarm’s work is based on research from Washington University. In March, the Washington University researchers, who are also the scientific founders of Disarm, published an article in the journal Neuron explaining the role of SARM1 in neuron destruction.
Atlas was looking for potential axonal degeneration investments last year when it came across the work being done at Washington University, Rhodes says. Atlas seeded Disarm with $2 million in funding. The startup repeated and confirmed the research about SARM1 that had been done by the academic researchers and demonstrated that the enzyme could be targeted with a small molecule drug.
Rhodes says a SARM1-blocking pill could offer a fundamental change in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. MS, for example, is characterized by the loss of axons over time. Drug research has targeted the loss of myelin, the protective coating on nerves. Rhodes says a SARM1 inhibitor could become the first treatment to instead address axon degeneration.
Disarm still has a long way to go. The company will use the new capital for preclinical research. There is no lead disease target yet; Devraj says that the preclinical work will cover a number of different diseases in order to figure out which ones to study in clinical trials. Rhodes says there is no firm timeline for that work, but he expects it will take several years.
Also participating in the investment were Lightstone Ventures and AbbVie Ventures, the investment arm of Chicago-area pharmaceutical company AbbVie (NYSE: ABBV). AbbVie has no rights to any compounds that come from Disarm’s work. Rhodes says that the company was simply interested in the firm’s founding research.