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.

An­drea Chic­ca

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.

Jürg Gertsch

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.

Si­mon Rus­sell

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.

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