Tetra Discovery Lands Funding, Plans Alzheimer’s Drug Trial in 2015

Grand Rapids, MI-based biotech startup Tetra Discovery has been in the news a lot lately. This week, the Michigan Pre-Seed Fund 2.0 announced that Tetra Discovery was the recipient of a $100,000 investment. The company also recently scored additional financing from Grand Angels and Johnson & Johnson Development Corp., the venture capital subsidiary of healthcare conglomerate Johnson & Johnson.

Mark Gurney, Tetra’s CEO, says that, in total, the company has raised $1.6 million from private investors. Tetra has also gotten funding from the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Blueprint for Neuroscience Research program ($15 million) and the National Institute of Mental Health ($4 million).

Gurney says Tetra’s funding model is unusual because angel investors led the latest round, while J&J was brought on at the end to close it out. The government grants also helped to comfort skittish investors. “The mixed funding model really works well for us,” Gurney says. “The NIH lowers the risk for private investors.”

Tetra is developing drugs for neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, depression, and traumatic brain injury. Those drugs are designed to inhibit phosphodiesterase (PDE) enzymes, which in the brain are involved in cognition and memory, schizophrenia, depression, and neuroinflammation. PDEs—which are best known as the targets of the erectile dysfunction drugs sildenafil (Viagra) and tadalafil (Cialis)—have interested several drugmakers, including a number of biotechs in the neurology space. Cambridge, MA-based Forum Pharmaceuticals, for instance, is also testing a PDE inhibitor in schizophrenia, while Seattle’s Omeros (NASDAQ: OMER), has been developing one for schizophrenia and Huntington’s. Those two companies, however, are targeting PDE10 with their drugs; Tetra is going after certain subtypes of PDE4.

Gurney moved to Michigan in 1995 to work on Alzheimer’s research for Upjohn. “We made a breakthrough a number of years ago in studying this class of enzymes,” Gurney explains. “It has driven my interest in setting up Tetra. I think these drugs will be transformational.”

Gurney points out there are three million Alzheimer’s patients in the United States. Between being caregivers and patients, one in six people over age 65 are affected by Alzheimer’s, causing $100 billion in economic impact—and those numbers are only going to increase as our population ages.

Unfortunately, while billions of dollars have gone in to Alzheimer’s research, there are only a few FDA-approved Alzheimer’s drugs. And at best, those drugs just help delay progression of the disease for some patients for a short period of time. “Patients don’t get worse, but they don’t show improvement,” Gurney says. “Our drugs are able to boost the pathway for creating memories. And beyond Alzheimer’s, there are all these other applications.”

Gurney plans to use some of the new funding to get an Alzheimer’s drug candidate into clinical testing, which he aims to do sometime in mid-2015. Tetra also hopes to get a second drug for traumatic brain injury into its first clinical trial in 2016.

Tetra is collaborating with the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT to test its Alzheimer’s drug in mice, and the company is also working on brain injury treatments with the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. This month, it also formed a scientific advisory board consisting of Catherine Strader and James McDonald of Synergy Partners, and Scott Reines and Jeffrey Nye of Janssen R&D.

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