For years, drug hunters have viewed neuroscience as one of the most challenging areas of research. The complicated biology of the brain and central nervous system, or CNS, has time and again stumped the world's most experienced pharmaceutical companies, causing many promising treatments to fail and many would-be developers to pull back from their work.
But some, including a richly funded startup launching Thursday, believe a greater understanding of biology and recent improvements in technology are ushering in a new era for brain drugs.
In this era, Neumora Therapeutics wants to change how medicines for psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders are made, using a platform that analyzes many different types of data together, from clinical trial results to brain imaging to a patient's genetic makeup. The hope, according to Neumora's leaders, is that this information not only leads to more precise treatments for specific groups of patients, but also helps researchers design better studies to evaluate them.
"We built the company specifically to address the issues that have plagued CNS development for the last couple of decades," said Lori Lyons-Williams, a former executive at Allergan and Dermira who's serving as Neumora's president and chief operating officer.
Chief among those issues is that, historically, diseases of the brain and CNS have been treated in broad strokes.
Unlike certain cancers or rare conditions, which can be traced to specific mutations in the genetic code, it's thought that neurological illnesses are often the result of multiple problems happening at the same time. For example: scientists don't know all the causes of ALS — better known to some as Lou Gehrig's disease — but research indicates that both genetics and environmental factors play roles.
Neumora, which was founded in late 2019, has spent the past two years building a platform that it says can crunch data from various sources and, in turn, offer better guidance for brain drug discovery and development. The company now has eight drug programs, half of which came from internal discovery and research work at its facility in Watertown, Massachusetts.
Neumora's emergence also marks the latest attempt in a yearslong quest by the venture capital firm Arch Venture Partners to build a new type of neuroscience company. Arch, Neumora's principal backer, previously seeded BlackThorn Therapeutics, a spinout of the Scripps Research Institute that was similarly built to overcome some of the neuroscience field's notorious obstacles.
BlackThorn has since become a building block for Neumora, which acquired the the company along with private biotechs Abelian Therapeutics and Alairion and a machine learning specialist named Syllable Life Sciences. Neumora also licensed two preclinical assets from Amgen, and has collaborated with deCODE genetics, a provider of genome analytics that Amgen bought for $415 million back in 2012.
Neumora's two most advanced drugs, called NMRA-140 and NMRA-511, are being evaluated in early- and mid-stage clinical trials as possible treatments for major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders, respectively.
Already, the company and its healthy crop of programs have attracted outside interest. It's launching with $400 million in Series A funding from Arch and a lengthy list of venture capital firms, plus a $100 million investment from Amgen.
To Paul Berns, a Neumora co-founder and a managing director at Arch, Thursday's launch is a significant milestone.
When Berns joined the firm several years ago, there were discussions about how to form a biotech focused on precision medicines for the CNS. Arch had invested in companies with "exciting new compounds," he said, but none of them had a well-vetted platform that could routinely improve the odds of success developing new, targeted drugs for brain diseases.
The firm's venture capitalists met with experts, and what they determined, according to Berns, was that progress in computer science had finally put such a platform within reach. "It became really clear to us that there had been substantial advancements, not just in the understanding of the basic biology of brain diseases, but really the ramp up and utility of computational data science approaches."
Now in the public view, Neumora will find itself under greater pressure to show its technology works. According to Lyons-Williams, the platform needs not only to identify effective CNS therapies and the patients who might best respond to them, but, perhaps just as importantly, offer insights that can improve subsequent drug discovery and testing.
"I think that's what stood out for most investors," Lyons-Williams said. "They believe we'll continue to learn in every single trial, become smarter at every step of the process, and ultimately home in on these patient populations and ways that we can deliver differentiated success."
In addition to Arch, the Series A round saw participation from Polaris Partners, Alexandria Venture Investments, Altitude Life Science Ventures, F-Prime Capital, Invus, the Softbank Vision Fund 2 and at least half a dozen other venture firms.
The company currently has more than 90 employees, including a 13-member executive team, many of whom have years of experience in neurology or data analysis. Chief Research Officer Nick Brandon, for example, helped lead neuroscience research at Pfizer and AstraZeneca, whereas Chief Data Science Officer John Reynders was previously Moderna's first chief information officer and a vice president of data sciences, genomics and bioinformatics at Alexion Pharmaceuticals.
Neumora expects its headcount to keep growing, particularly on the data sciences side.