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Neumora launches with $500 million to develop drugs for brain diseases

The startup has already struck a partnership with Amgen, acquired multiple smaller companies, and built a pipeline of 8 programs

by Ryan Cross
October 7, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 37


A structure of a kappa opioid receptor antagonist
Neumora's NMRA-140, a kappa opioid receptor antagonist previously developed by Blackthorn Therapeutics

In one of the largest biotech debuts this year, Neumora Therapeutics has raised $400 million in series A financing from more than a dozen venture capital firms plus $100 million from Amgen. The firm’s goal: precision small-molecule therapies for a multitude of brain diseases.

The startup was quietly founded in late 2019 by several people at Arch Venture Partners, neurobiologist Morgan Sheng of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, and others. The company has since grown to a team of 90 people based in Watertown, Massachusetts, and San Francisco.

Neumora has acquired four smaller startups that will help it hit the ground running with eight drug programs—including two, previously owned by Blackthorn Therapeutics, that are already in clinical trials for anxiety and depression. Neumora also struck a research collaboration with Amgen on additional programs for brain diseases including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and schizophrenia.

CEO and cofounder Paul L. Berns says the company is based on recent advances in neuroscience disease biology and computational data science. For too long, people with conditions like depression and Parkinson’s disease have been lumped into single buckets, when in reality these diseases can manifest in many ways, he explains.

Neumora will use brain imaging, behavioral tests, clinical data, circulating biomarkers, and genetics to “break apart these diseases of heterogeneity” and find smaller subgroups of people who are most likely to benefit from a particular drug, Berns adds. “Data is really the lifeblood of this company,” he says.

Some of Neumora’s data scientists come from its acquisition of Syllable Life Sciences, a startup that uses computer vision and machine learning to spot subtle patterns in animal behavior. “It really allows us to understand the individual syllables of behavior,” says Lori Lyons-Williams, Neumora’s president and chief operating officer. Neumora will use the technology to study how the body language of animals and people changes when they are experiencing symptoms of a disease and recognize when those symptoms are relieved with a drug.

Neumora has an unusually large and detailed pipeline for a new company. Its kappa opioid receptor antagonist, in a Phase 2 trial for depression, and its vasopressin 1A receptor antagonist, in a Phase 1 trial for anxiety, both came from its acquisition of Blackthorn. An experimental sleep disorder drug, which targets both the histamine H1 and serotonin 5-HT2A receptors, came from Neumora’s purchase of the small company Alairion.

Two of Neumora’s compounds for treating neurodegenerative diseases, targeting casein kinase 1 delta (CK1δ) and glucocerebrosidase, were licensed from Amgen. Neumora has also acquired the early-stage startup Abelian Therapeutics, which was studying the role of glial cells in brain disease.

Williams says Neumora has also been developing its own compounds that target CK1δ. The company is designing drugs that target the NLRP3 inflammasome to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. And it’s making molecules that target two glutamate receptor subunits, GRIN2A and GRIN2B, for neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression.

Neumora will face competition from other biotech and big drug companies with similar programs, including inhibitors of NLRP3, which several firms are pursuing for inflammation and neurodegenerative diseases. “The key differentiator will be taking those molecules into more targeted subpopulations that are predicted to better respond to those particular therapeutic agents,” says John Dunlop, Neumora’s chief scientific officer.


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