The biotech world has brains on their mind today with the launch of Denali Therapeutics, a mega-startup with lofty goals of developing drugs for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
A big problem in finding treatments for those diseases is how little we know about the brain itself. One group making those explorations and sharing them with the world is the Allen Institute for Brain Science, one of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s myriad Seattle-area ventures.
I was in Seattle last week and had the chance to meet several people from the institute, tour its labs, and hear about a project making its public debut today.
With the Allen Cell Types Database, the institute aims to catalog and classify the types of neurons that fill the brain. It’s a task the institute staff likens to building the periodic table of elements in chemistry. (They’re starting with mice; future versions will have human neurons.)
There are other cells in the brain, but neurons—86 billion of them, by some estimates—run the show. No one knows exactly how many kinds of neurons we have, but the Allen researchers want to create a standard taxonomy to describe them. So far they have detailed 240 individual neurons by their shape, genetic profile, electrical activity, location in the brain, and more.
The institute is putting the database online, as well as software tools that outside researchers can use in their own work.
Xconomy tends to focus more on science that’s closer to a business proposition, but the Allen Institute is squarely an early-stage research group, teasing out and sharing new, fundamental information about how the brain works.
We’re making an exception today, in part because we like to post pictures of brains and cells. (See slideshow.) There’s another reason. As COO David Poston described during a panel discussion at our Seattle biotech forum last week, the institute wants to start licensing its ideas and technology in the future. It’s not likely to become a drug discovery or development partner, as many academic and research groups are doing these days. But the tools and software developed there to probe and analyze the mysteries of the brain might be worth spinning out into companies down the road, Poston said.
The institute isn’t ready to discuss specifically what might get spun out, or how quickly. But the willingness is there, and top executives Poston, CEO Allan Jones, and CTO Chinh Dang are no stranger to the for-profit sector, all having worked at biotechs at some point in their careers.
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