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MindImmune, a promising new drug development firm, develops its RI roots

Collaborative relationship with Ryan Institute for Neuroscience at URI is being explored

Photo by Richard Asinof

Richard Horan, managing director of the Slater Technology Fund, Stevin Zorn, CEO of MindImmune, Inc., and Frank Menniti, chief scientific officer at MindImmune, at the Aging 2.0 startup pitch event.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/30/16
The emergence of a new drug development firm, targeting the ways that the immune system interacts with the central nervous system, as a platform for new first-in-class therapeutics to treat brain disease such as Alzheimer’s, underscores the strength of the neuroscience research capabilities in Rhode Island. MindImmune’s potential collaborative relationship with the Ryan Institute for Neuroscience at URI also illuminates the strengths in the state’s biomedical innovation industry cluster.
How will the Brown Institute for Brain Sciences choose to interact and collaborate with MindImmune? Will MindImmune’s efforts also take root in the proposed Wexford development for the former Route 195 land? Will the potential success of Slater Technology Fund’s ability to support new biomedical startups such as MindImmune lead to more substantive conversations with CommerceRI and Stefan Pryor? Will MindImmune, in turn, seek out EpiVax to learn how its immuno-informatic technology’s ability to look at immune system responses to diseases may provide insights into their drug development work?
The role of the brain’s response to fight off infection and its possible causal link to the origins of the plaque in Alzheimer’s disease is the focus of researchers at Harvard University, whose work was published recently in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
The research scenario suggests that a virus, a fungus or some bacteria slips past the blood-brain barrier that often becomes leaky as people age, as detailed in a recent article in The New York Times. In turn, the brain’s defense system rushes in to stop the invader, forming a cage of beta amyloid – a plaque that is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s.
The leakiest part of the blood brain barrier as a result of aging is the hippocampus, the site of learning and memory, according to researchers at the University of Southern California.
In conversations with ConvergenceRI about MindImmune, Zorn made a point to ask if ConvergenceRI had read the New York Times story. Stay tuned.

KINGSTON – MindImmune Therapeutics, Inc, a newly incorporated drug development company, did not win the Providence Aging 2.0 startup pitch competition held on May 23 at the Social Enterprise Greenhouse.

No matter. When it comes to promising startup companies operating within the Rhode Island innovation ecosystem, the firm has a lot going for it.

First, it has the strong backing of Paula Grammas, the director of the University of Rhode Island’s George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience.

Grammas talked about the promise of MindImmune at the Santander Bank-Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce economic outlook breakfast on April 5, before more than 300 business leaders who had gathered at the Omni Providence Hotel, according to a story by Kate Bramson in The Providence Journal.

The goal is to have the company build an affiliation with the Institute for Neuroscience and through that relationship, “leverage the rapidly expanding Rhode Island ecosystem of academic neurosciences resources to advance its drug development programs,” according to MindImmune’s LinkedIn profile.

At the Aging 2.0 startup pitch session, Stevin Zorn, MindImmune's CEO, who most recently worked at Lundbeck, a global pharmaceutical firm, when asked by emcee Dr. Johnny Luo to name the most exciting thing that had happened, Zorn spoke about his meeting earlier that day with URI President David Dooley, and Dooley’s pronouncement that they were “on the same page.”

Scientific know-how
Second, the chief scientific officer at MindImmune is Frank Menniti, the co-founder and former chief scientific officer at Mnemosyne Pharmaceuticals, which recently became Luc Therapeutics, moved to Cambridge, Mass., and signed a pre-clinical drug deal potentially worth nine figures with Novartis. [See links to ConvegenceRI stories below.]

With the backing of an initial investment from Slater Technology Fund in 2010, Menniti and CEO Kollol Pal launched the drug development company, based upon research that had been abandoned by Pfizer. The company successfully attracted more than $11 million in Series A financing from venture capital firms.

One back story with Mnemosyne Pharmaceuticals was its apparent difficulty in attracting interest in collaboration from neuroscience researchers at Brown University, who did not respond to overtures from the company, according to sources.

That will not be the case with MindImmune and its relationship with URI, with both the university and the firm expressing eagerness to collaborate.

Menniti currently serves as an adjunct professor of Neuroscience at URI's Ryan Institute for Neuroscience.

The backing of Slater
Another encouraging component of the startup venture is the potential backing from Slater Technology Fund.

Although Rich Horan, managing director at Slater, told ConvergenceRI that no money has yet been invested in MindImmune, Slater is assisting MindImmune in its early development stages.

The focus of MindImmune’s research platform for developing first-in-class drugs is to look at the relationship between the immune system and the central nervous system and the ways in which they are intimately integrated.

“Immune system dysfunction is a critical, often causative factor in brain dysfunction,” according the firm’s LinkedIn post. What the drug development startup seeks to do is to identify the therapeutic opportunities in targeting the immune system to treat brain diseases.

Moving forward
MindImmune’s scientists said that they were not quite ready to discuss the company’s ongoing activities at this point in the firm’s development, given the sensitivity around identifying potential targets for research and potential deals around financing.

However, the emerging relationship with URI appears to be very much out of the playbook envisioned by The Brookings Institute and its strategies for economic growth in Rhode Island: the hiring of targeted faculty to bring in commercial research investments within an academic center.

As Grammas said at the economic outlook breakfast in April, “The plan is to develop neuroscience as a job creator – not only in Kingston, but also in Providence, through the 195 projected expansion,” as reported in Bramson’s story. “The URI neuroscience program will have a presence there as well.”


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