NU pharmaceutical spinoff aims to treat brain disorders

Sam Krevlin, Reporter

A Northwestern spinoff company that produces antidepressants was acquired in July by pharmaceutical company Allergan for an initial $560 million.

The scientists and researchers behind the company, Naurex, hope to continue their success by developing additional drugs targeting nervous system disorders under a new biopharmaceutical company Aptinyx.

Naurex’s success can be attributed to the way its antidepressant drugs target brain receptors called NMDAs, which are responsible for the communication of cells in the brain directly correlated with memory and learning. Naurex founder and McCormick Prof. Joseph Moskal believes the proper use of NMDA receptors can translate to other neurological disorders.

“(NMDA) receptors will very much translate to traumatic brain injury, schizophrenia, post traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy, cognitive deficit brought on by aging like Alzheimer’s disease,” Moskal said. “All of those should be impacted and more by (NMDA) receptor modulators.”

What separates Naurex’s two antidepressant drugs, rapastinel and NRX-1074, from other drugs is their immediate effect and apparent lack of side effects, Moskal said.

“We don’t have any obvious side effects,” he said. “They don’t show the side effects that you would expect like weight gain, loss of sexual interest or sleeplessness.”

Moskal said most antidepressants take two to four weeks to show any significant effect, which may be inconvenient for patients and their relatives who want to know which drug works best when treating clinical depression. With Naurex’s new drugs, he said, a patient can know within 24 hours whether they work or not.

Realizing NDMA receptors were linked to brain diseases, Moskal and his team created compounds able to modulate these receptors without consequences, Moskal said. The compounds created neither “turn on” nor “turn off” the receptor fully, a feat that makes the drug unique, according to Aptinyx’s website.

“We are in a new space entirely,” Moskal said. “This isn’t your grandma’s antidepressant. This is a new class of compounds that work by a new mechanism. And that mechanism is just beginning to be explored.”

Under Aptinyx, researchers will be working closely with Allergan to continue targeting the NMDA receptor to make drugs for neurological diseases other than depression.

Feinberg Prof. Dr. John F. Disterhoft, who has collaborated with Moskal on experiments since the 1980s, said a company like Allergan can help get these drugs to the patient population faster.

“Allergan will be an important financial supporter as Aptinyx takes over the drug discovery machinery that Professor Moskal has built up over the years,” he said. “By investing in and supporting Aptinyx, (Allergan) will optimize the chance of Professor Moskal and his team discovering more compounds both for antidepression and other applications.”

NU has also provided support throughout Moskal’s 30-year journey. Moskal said he appreciates the administration, faculty and students that have worked with him both in and out of the lab.

“As a University, we are in the business of developing people and ideas,” McCormick Dean Julio M. Ottino said. “Joe is an example of how those two things combine. … He has also involved many undergraduates and graduate students in his work.”

Ottino said he looks at Moskal as an example of what can be accomplished at McCormick. He believes innovative research that happens inside the labs will continue to hit the marketplace.

“Innovation is at the core of engineering, and we see it as our job to ensure that ideas make it out of the lab and to the people that can use them,” Ottino said. “There are so many examples of this throughout the school.”

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