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Brain trust: Local biotech company could help shape future of Alzheimer's, brain injury treatments

Dr. Mark Gurney

A Grand Rapids-based biotechnology company is making progress on a pair of new drugs that could offer hope to patients of Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia and traumatic brain injury. Steven Thomas Kent reports on the cutting-edge developments and nationally recognized research coming out of this spot on the Medical Mile.
A local biotechnology company should begin human clinical trials on two new drugs that affect neural pathways in the brain within the next year, and the results could open up new horizons of hope for sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and other cognitive impairments, the company’s founder says.

Grand Rapids-based Tetra Discovery Partners recently announced new private funding from the Grand Angels investment group, and Tetra founder, chairman and CEO Dr. Mark Gurney says that with the new funding and its existing grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), his company has the resources needed to ready two of its drug candidates for human clinical trials and apply for FDA approval for those tests.

The new drugs should begin clinical trials by next September, Gurney says, and Tetra should have significant data about the drugs and their efficacy in humans “within about three years from now,” he adds.

Gurney, who has a background in brain and cognitive science and previously worked for an international biotechnology company before he started Tetra in 2011, says that his company’s two new drugs work in fundamentally different ways from the treatment options that are currently available to Alzheimer’s and TBI patients, and could significantly improve patients’ quality of life if the company’s early results translate to human trials.

The company’s brain injury drug, Dr. Gurney says, aims to improve learning and memory in patients who have suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). The drug works, he says, by reducing inflammation in the brain, which seems to be one of the primary causes of cognitive impairment in TBI patients.

“With this brain injury drug,” he says, “we have a model where a rat that has sustained a brain injury three months earlier is really not able to learn. A single dose of the drug, and that animal has its learning restored to normal levels.”

“What’s interesting,” he adds, “is that in the presence of the drug, when dosed with the drug, [the rat] can make a memory, but then if you take away the drug, it can retrieve that memory, but [now] it can’t form a new memory [again]. So it’s really quite amazing, the way these drugs are working on the brain.”

Tetra’s Alzheimer’s drug, meanwhile, works to “modulate,” or re-configure, a particular fundamental neural pathway in the brain that contributes to memory and learning, Dr. Gurney says.

While current drugs that treat memory loss in Alzheimer’s patients can usually only prevent the patient’s memory from worsening, Gurney says, early results on Tetra’s drug suggest that it could actually reverse a patient’s cognitive decline and restore memory functions that had previously been lost.

“The [Alzheimer’s] drugs we’re working with actually improve memory in healthy animals,” Gurney says. “So they improve performance beyond what the healthy person is currently capable of. So with Alzheimer’s patients, we hope it will help improve their ability in daily living. We’d like to see an improvement rather than just them not worsening.”

Besides Alzheimer’s disease, Gurney says, the drug’s ability to reconfigure a patient’s neural pathways means that it might also have applications in treating Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and schizophrenia, among other cognitive-impairment conditions.

“It’s a very fundamental biochemical pathway in the brain that this drug is affecting,” Gurney says. “And what the animal studies are telling us is that the efficacy should be very good, and it could be very helpful to patients across all these different diseases.”

Dr. Lance Stewart, a managing partner at Tetra Discovery who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and virology, says that Dr. Gurney’s drugs for traumatic brain injury comprise some of the most promising and exciting treatment options he’s seen since he first took a scientific interest in the area of TBI in the 1990s.

Stewart previously worked with Dr. Gurney at deCODE genetics, Inc., an Iceland-based biopharmaceutical company. The two worked together on discovering molecules for cognition enhancement until 2010, when financial difficulties at deCODE caused both scientists to pursue other ventures.

Stewart’s new company, Emerald BioStructures, quickly began collaborating with Tetra, and Stewart eventually transitioned out of the company and wound up at Tetra himself.

“I had worked on cognition with Mark [Gurney] before,” Stewart says, “but I was struck by the lack of anything for traumatic brain injury, anything for recovery or along those lines. I had looked at it in the ‘90s and just found that it was a tremendously challenging area. Since every TBI is different, it’s very hard to run clinical trials on TBI and receive solid outcomes.”

“I think there’s a better understanding of memory and cognition at the molecular level [now],” he continues, “which is going to help companies like Tetra develop drugs in a smarter way using imaging. There are tons of new brain imaging technologies today that are enabling us to have a better understanding of how drugs affect chemistry in the brain.”

Dr. Stewart’s interest in traumatic brain injury, in particular, has a deeply personal component. His son, Jackson, suffered severe head trauma in a 2011 car crash at the age of 18, and spent over 20 days in a coma.

Although Jackson regained consciousness and recovered his ability to walk and talk, Dr. Stewart says his son faced a long road of rehabilitation and recovery, and has since struggled with slurred speech, balance issues, memory and speech challenges, and nerve palsy and vision impairment in his right eye.

Besides the cognitive effects of the injury, Jackson experienced significant personality changes after the crash — a known and well-documented phenomenon that sometimes occurs after a traumatic brain injury. Although Dr. Stewart says he and his wife found Jackson to be more mature and reflective after the crash, Jackson also felt disconnected from his life before the injury, he says.

An accurate 3 dimensional representation of Tetra's new drug compound.At one point, Stewart says, his son pored over posts from his old Facebook account to re-learn about himself. Later, he deleted the old account and started from scratch with a new one.

“He’s still recovering today, slowly,” Dr. Stewart says of his son. “So it was very disruptive for him, and it resets one’s priorities. You go on with your daily life until you face a close-to-death experience like that out of the blue, and then suddenly everything else just kind of falls by the wayside.”

Dr. Stewart says he hopes that Tetra’s TBI drugs could one day speed the long process of rehabilitation for patients like Jackson, who is today enrolled in a degree program at the University of Colorado in Boulder as he continues his recovery.
“Mark’s drugs are not meant for critical care — it’s not something you would take to save yourself,” Stewart says. “There are other drugs people are working on like that, but… One thing that’s very clear [with TBI] is that the ability to rapidly recover depends on the ability of the brain to establish memories in the short term and long term, because you’re having to re-learn a lot of things.”

“So molecules like Mark is working on could potentially be used in conjunction with rehab in the future,” he finishes, “to really accelerate rehabilitation of patients after an injury.”

Although Drs. Stewart and Gurney and the other managing partners at Tetra provide the industry experience and scientific expertise that fuels the company's drug innovations, Dr. Gurney says Grand Valley State University deserves credit for some of the company’s ability to create cutting-edge drug platforms out of West Michigan.

Without the incubator space in the GVSU Cook-DeVos Center, where Tetra’s office resides, and its associated life-science lab space, Gurney says, Tetra wouldn’t be able to exist in Grand Rapids.

He also credits a statewide and nation-spanning network of biomedical science collaborators, including the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT and the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, in helping Tetra Discovery Partners to raise its nationwide profile and expand its scope.

“For a small West Michigan company, we’ve really been able to reach outside the state,” Gurney says, “and it’s basically the quality of the science and the innovative nature of the drugs we’re working on here that excites people.”

Steven Thomas Kent is the editor at Roadbelly magazine and a high-tech, high-growth features writer at Rapid Growth Media. Stalk him on Twitter @steventkent or e-mail him at steven.t.kent@gmail.com for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird
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