Adding marquee investors, BlackThorn bags $76M to back an AI-driven strategy for precision neuro medicine
As artificial intelligence and machine learning loom ever larger in drug discovery and development, a biotech operating at the “nexus” of technology and neurosciences has cashed in with $76 million in fresh financing.
The big idea at BlackThorn Therapeutics is to do for neurobehavioral disorders what genetically targeted therapy has done for oncology: Redefine patient populations by the underlying biology — dysregulated brain circuits, or neurotypes — instead of symptoms, thereby finding the patients who are most likely to benefit at enrollment phase.
The challenges that neurosciences drug developers run into, president and COO Bill Martin explained, have a lot to do with how diseases are diagnosed. When heterogeneous patient populations get lumped into one giant group, he said, “the categories themselves wind up getting in the way of therapeutic innovation.”
“So for us, the shift is beginning to use the tools of the age, if you will, to bring biological understanding to these mental health disorders,” he added.
It’s an approach that’s won over a number of top-notch investors, with Arch, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, Biomatics, GV, Altitude Life Science Ventures, Mercury Fund and Alexandria Real Estate Equities to boast about in its $40 million Series A. This time around, Polaris Partners, Premier Partners, Scripps Research and Vertex Ventures also jumped in for the ride.
“BlackThorn has positioned itself at the forefront of [personalized medicine in mental health] by building the largest library of deeply phenotyped clinical neurobiological data and a cloud-based platform powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) to inform rational, targeted drug discovery and development,” Arch partner and BlackThorn executive chair Paul Berns said in a statement.
The cash infusion will allow the team — which has grown from 13 to 40 in less than three years — to pursue two Phase II and one Phase I across its three lead molecules, Martin told me.
BTRX-335140 is an antagonist of kappa opioid receptor for mood/anxiety disorders, while BTRX-323511 is a potential autism treatment that targets the vasopressin 1a receptor. And the biotech will reintroduce BTRX-246040, the failed drug in-licensed from Eli Lilly, with new insights gained from plugging Lilly’s Phase II data into their platform.
At the forefront of the clinical mission will be Jane Tiller, a Bristol-Myers and Cephalon vet who’s signed on as CMO.
BlackThorn is located in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, which gives them unique access to a talent pool that includes experts in both life sciences and tech, Martin said.
Image: Bill Martin. BlackThorn