A Cambridge biotech startup is using a new method to gauge the health of synapses in people’s brains as it prepares to test an experimental medicine to treat Alzheimer’s disease, the great white whale for drug makers.
Rodin Therapeutics said Thursday it has begun testing a recently developed radioactive chemical that binds with a protein present in synapses, structures that allow nerve cells to pass electrical or chemical signals to each other.
Yale University researchers recently found that after the chemical was injected into patients, PET imaging technology detected less of the protein in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s than in the brains of healthy patients.
PET — Positron emission tomography — scanning has been used to detect build-ups of tau protein and amyloid plaque, which are believed to be associated with Alzheimer’s. But until the Yale study, which was published this month in JAMA Neurology, the only reliable way to measure deterioration of synapses in people with the devastating form of dementia was through an autopsy.
“Decades of literature show synaptic loss tied to various diseases states,” including Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and major depressive disorder, said Adam Rosenberg, chief executive of Rodin. “What’s exciting about this tracer,” he said of the imaging chemical, “is that we don’t have to wait until death to see that.”
Rodin is testing the radioactive substance, which was developed by Belgium-based drug maker UCB, in scans on 10 healthy patients and 10 patients with Alzheimer’s at two medical centers in the Netherlands.
It wants to make sure that synaptic activity is relatively stable after 28 days, both in people with healthy brains and those with Alzheimer’s. If it is, Rodin scientists will feel confident that scans can reliably assess the effectiveness of an experimental drug that the biotech has developed. Rodin wants to begin testing the drug on patients with Alzheimer’s in clinical trials next year.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said in a recent tweet that using a PET scan to measure deterioration of synapses in a living adult “could prove groundbreaking” for Alzheimer’s research.
Rodin plans to spend more than $1 million on the study measuring the reliability of PET scans of synapses. Rosenberg said he wants to share the results widely because he believes it could prove useful to neuroscientists studying a range of disorders that affect synapses.
Finding an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s has so far proven elusive. The disorder affects 5.7 million Americans, a number expected to reach 14 million by 2050, as people live longer.
Rodin, a privately held company, was founded in 2013 and has raised $45 million in investments, Rosenberg said. Its lead investor is Atlas Venture, the venture capital firm based in Cambridge’s Technology Square.
Trained as a lawyer, Rosenberg has cofounded several biotech companies in Massachusetts. He also served as an adviser on the production of “A Late Quartet,” a 2012 film about a cellist in a world-class string quartet who is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org