Chasing a 'master modulator' in the endocannabinoid system, biotech upstart promises to shake up neuropsychiatric treatments
For two years in the early 2000s, new discoveries and budding enthusiasm around the endogenous cannabinoid system — so named because it’s responsible for the effects of cannabis in the human body — culminated in a marketed drug: Sanofi’s Acomplia.
The first drug to specifically target the cannabinoid receptor CB1, it was ultimately withdrawn from the EU and Brazil due to findings that it may cause suicidal thoughts despite being effective in treating obesity. The FDA never approved it.
“For some years the companies became a bit reluctant to touch the receptor because of this potential effect,” said Andrea Chicca, then a postdoc studying cancer biology.
But the pendulum has swung back again, according to Chicca — whose biotech startup, Synendos, has just gathered $21.85 million (CHF$20 million) to prove its suite of selective endocannabinoid reuptake inhibitors can offer a brand new way to treat neuropsychiatric disorders.
Chicca, a longtime researcher at the University of Bern, is CEO, CSO and, for now, the only full-time employee of the biotech startup.
The idea draws from a decade of basic science work by himself and Jürg Gertsch, chasing proteins known as endocannabinoid transporters. Eventually, they realized that the compounds they were generating to block cannabinoid reuptake for experimental use could have potential as human medicines, and devised a second generation of what they called SERIs.
Without giving away the precise target, Chicca noted that what they’re going after sits upstream to the classic neurotransmitters: serotonin, glutamate, GABA and others.
In other words, it’s a “master modulator” that becomes dysregulated in CNS disorders and triggers a cascade to the downstream signaling.
While Chicca acknowledges the optimism around psychedelic drugs, their intrinsic risks mean patients must be treated in very specific hospital settings under tight control of doctors.
“So they cannot really become pills to be given to a patient that they can take at home for months,” he said.
Even cannabis, which is much less risky, is associated with side effects like cognitive, learning and memory issues. Synendos’ small molecules are designed to sidestep those exact problems while retaining the anti-stress function. They can also penetrate the brain, at least in animal models — a nice plus for a compound Synendos is positioning for large indications like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, compulsive behavior and even depression.
“We aim not to activate the system from outside, but restore the endogenous cannabinoid system,” Chicca said. “So by increasing the level of the endogenous molecules that are already present in our body, we don’t need to add anything.”
If successful — and this is no guarantee in an area akin to a minefield for drug developers — Chicca sees Synendos expanding to other areas such as neuroinflammation.
The Series A should grow the team and take the company through initial, healthy volunteers testing followed by a proof-of-concept in a yet-to-be-announced indication that links anxiety, stress and mood related disorders. It’s also the first financing Synendos has raised since spinning out of the University of Bern and the research consortium NCCR TransCure, as Chicca and Gertsch had been relying on non-dilutive funding while working with BaseLaunch.
Simon Russell, an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Basel-based accelerator and incubator who has a full time job as CBO of Omeicos Therapeutics, joined the duo as a co-founder and board member.
Kurma Partners and Sunstone Life Science Ventures led the round, with participation from BERNINA BioInvest, Schroder Adveq, High-Tech Gründerfonds, Lichtsteiner Foundation, Essential Investments, Zürcher Kantonalbank and private investors.