Atlanta biotechnology company, NeurOp, Inc., is a preclinical-stage company developing proprietary small molecules for the treatment of central nervous system diseases. NeurOp is part of a larger biotechnology industry in Georgia that has created more than 62,000 jobs, $16 billion in sales and $517 million in state and local tax revenues.
NeurOp was founded in 2002 by Raymond Dingledine and Stephen Traynelis, both in the Department of Pharmacology at Emory University’s School of Medicine, and James McNamara, chairman of the neurobiology department at Duke University Medical Center. Through their collaboration, they were able to translate years of research focused on a critical signaling pathway in the central nervous system into promising drug compounds for the treatment of major depression, neuropathic pain and ischemia. The company is located at Georgia State University’s CollabTech facility, a space specifically designated for biotechnology startup companies.
“The company didn’t really begin its commercial operations until 2006 when it received a $1.4 million Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant that allowed the Emory-based technology to be expanded and explored,” explained Barney Koszalka, NeurOp’s president and chief executive officer. “The NeurOp team, then led by Vince La Terza and Scott Myers, used SBIR and angel funding to gain an understanding of the structure-activity relationship between our molecules and the target. This included completing key in vivo efficacy and safety studies as we built a library of more than 400 proprietary compounds and expanded our patent portfolio. Those assets were critical in attracting our current partner, Bristol-Myers Squibb, for depression and pain indications.”
NeurOp’s technology is based on N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor (NMDAR) antagonists. By specifically targeting certain subunits on those receptors, the company’s compounds potentially offer improved therapeutic benefits while alleviating side effects associated with previous-generation NMDAR antagonists.
“For example, one of the big problems with using standard SSRIs [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors] to treat depression is the time from starting the medication to experiencing some symptom relief. That period can be as long as four to six weeks before patients start to feel better,” Koszalka noted. “If you block this receptor the way our drugs do, you can provide symptomatic relief to these patients as soon as 24 hours after they begin therapy. Moreover, clinical data suggest that drugs acting as NeurOp’s do are effective among patients who don’t respond to first-line antidepressants.”
NeurOp has also discovered NR2B subunit-specific NMDAR antagonists that have weak activity in normal brain tissue but offer potent neuroprotection in brain tissue experiencing focal acidification. Such low-pH conditions occur when the blood supply to a region of the brain is restricted, as in a stroke or during rapid neuronal firing.
NeurOp joined Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) in 2006 and received $470,000 in funding from the Georgia Research Alliance and $195,000 from the ATDC Seed Capital Fund, an investment entity that expands and diversifies the state’s economy by funding innovative companies in Georgia. NeurOp used some of these funds to purchase instrumentation that “made all the difference in the world to NeurOp at the time,” according to Koszalka. The Seed Capital Fund, SBIR grants and the Georgia Research Alliance have provided NeurOp with nearly $2.6 million to further develop compounds and move its business forward. The company has also raised approximately $4.1 million from investors, Bristol-Myers Squibb and other sources.
NeurOp announced its collaboration last March with Bristol-Myers Squibb to develop its proprietary small molecules for the treatment of major depression and other central nervous system disorders. Under the agreement, Bristol-Myers Squibb agreed to pay an upfront fee of $1.5 million and to fund a two-year research collaboration. NeurOp is also eligible to receive up to $74 million in potential milestone payments for the successful development of a compound in major depression and royalties on worldwide sales of commercialized compounds.
Not only has NeurOp raised significant funding to further its mission, but the young startup has also drawn experienced industry talent to Georgia. Koszalka has managed the discovery and development of drugs at all stages of development from preclinical to the market, working with more than a dozen drugs over his 30-year career at such corporations as Argolyn Biosciences, Burroughs Wellcome, Glaxo Wellcome, GlaxoSmithKline and Trimeris. In 2005, NeurOp received top honors at the Southeast BIO Early-Stage Company “Shootout.”
“This is a home-grown company that has managed to attract national attention,” said Harold Shlevin, ATDC’s manager of bioscience commercialization efforts and a member of NeurOp’s Board of Directors. “Developing and marketing treatments for central nervous system diseases has long been an area of keen interest for me and an area with significantly unmet medical need.”
Koszalka stresses that state resources have been of the utmost importance to a small, technology startup like NeurOp and encourages the Georgia state legislature to continue funding resources like ATDC.
“Without state funding, organizations like NeurOp would probably come and go very quickly to other areas in the Southeast or Northeast that have a commitment to supporting these young organizations,” Koszalka observed. “For what I regard as a very nominal investment, we now have seven full-time employees in downtown Atlanta with the prospects of growing that employment base. That should speak volumes.”
About the ATDC:
The Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) is a startup accelerator that helps Georgia technology entrepreneurs launch and build successful technology companies. Founded in 1980, ATDC has helped create millions of dollars in tax revenues by graduating more than 120 companies, which together have raised more than a billion dollars in outside financing. ATDC has provided business incubation and acceleration services to hundreds of Georgia startups – most of which are not based on Georgia Tech research, but which benefit from the close proximity to the university.
Recently ATDC expanded its mission by merging with Georgia Tech’s VentureLab and with the Georgia Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Assistance Program. This change has enabled ATDC to greatly extend its reach to serve more technology companies along multiple growth paths and at all stages of development. ATDC has opened its membership to all technology entrepreneurs in Georgia, from those at the earliest conception stage to the well-established, venture-fundable companies.
ATDC is part of the Enterprise Innovation Institute (EI2) at Georgia Tech, which helps Georgia enterprises improve their competitiveness through the application of science, technology and innovation. ATDC currently has three facilities; two at Georgia Tech’s main campus in Atlanta, and one at Georgia Tech’s satellite campus in Savannah.
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Writer: Nancy Fullbright