One size usually doesn’t fit all.
That’s the mantra behind a Watertown biotech that emerged from stealth mode on Thursday with $500 million to develop better therapies for brain diseases.
Neumora Therapeutics was founded about two years ago in response to the lack of safe and effective medicines to treat brain diseases. It’s a problem cofounder and chief executive Paul Berns, who is also a managing director at Arch Venture Partners, noticed years ago, and he believes technology might finally be ready to solve it.
The company is largely finding opportunity in the progress made by oncology companies working on drugs targeting specific mutations in patients’ genes, rather than organs and symptoms. It’s a method known as precision medicine, and Neumora wants to bring that process to neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric diseases, where most diseases are still classified broadly.
“When [physicians] see major depressive patients ... the person they saw in the morning and the person they saw in the afternoon ... the drivers of the disease and characteristics of those patients are really, really different,” he said. “Yet we’ve only developed therapies over the last handful of decades that try to do a one-size-fits-all.”
Changing that presents challenges.
First, Neumora will have to understand the different drivers of brain diseases. Then it will need to create therapies that can target the causes, as well as identify which group of patients are most likely to benefit from different approaches. Berns said what Neumora is trying to do wouldn’t have been possible just five years ago.
“We didn’t have the computational science capabilities to interpret all these rich data streams,” he said. “We became convinced ... that we could create one company that could digest all of this information ... to really create unique insights.”
The data science-driven effort is being led by chief scientific officer John Dunlop, who has worked in neuroscience at Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and most recently Amgen. He believes Neumora’s platform can address “consistent bottlenecks” in the field, and his former employer agrees.
As part of its launch, Neumora announced that the California biotech giant Amgen made a $100 million equity investment in the startup. The other $400 million came from a funding round led by Arch Venture, with participation from several investors, including Softbank Vision Fund 2 and local players F-Prime Capital and Polaris Partners.
Regulatory approval is still years away for Neumora, but it did get a jump-start on drug development. While operating in stealth mode, it acquired several private companies, including Boston-based Abelian Therapeutics and Cambridge-based Alairion. Neumora now has eight programs, including two in early clinical trials, and employs about 90 people.
Lori Lyons-Williams, president and chief operating officer of Neumora, acknowledged that there’s been a lot of attention on brain diseases this year, namely with the controversial approval of Biogen’s Aduhelm, a drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease. But she sees it as a sign that the Food and Drug Administration is opening the door to more approvals in neuroscience. Neumora’s precision medicine approach, she said, will remedy a major issue — “people don’t really know who is going to benefit from any given drug.” (Several private insurers and hospitals have said they won’t cover or administer Biogen’s Aduhelm.)
“That is really the reason for the formation of this company,” Lyons-Williams said.