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Life Sciences Roundup

Start-up envisions a new way to treat depression

Xconomy.Com / June 20, 2011

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Last week, the company Tal Medical started up in Boston with the goal of developing a new approach to treating depression, inspired by a magnetic field found in some MRI machines.

The treatment, developed at McLean Hospital in Belmont, was promising enough to win backing from PureTech Ventures of Boston and to attract talent like Steven Paul, a former Eli Lilly executive who will be chief scientific officer.

PureTech and individuals invested $800,000, says Daphne Zohar, PureTech’s managing partner.

The chief executive is Nessan Bermingham, who has a PhD in biology and is managing partner of Bio Equity Capital of Boston, which is not an investor.

Tal (“rhythm’’ in Hindi) was born of an accidental discovery. Ten years ago, McLean was participating in a study of patients with bipolar disorder that involved imaging their brains with MRI machines.

“The person doing the study noticed the patients were looking at her in the eye — they weren’t looking at their shoes — and they were being more interactive when they came out of the machine,’’ Bermingham says. The bottom line was that their moods were greatly improved after a short time in the MRI machine. “This happened again and again.’’

McLean researchers began to try to figure out what it was about the MRI device that was affecting the brain. They determined it was Low Field Magnetic Stimulation (LFMS) — an oscillating magnetic field they believed was resetting the brain’s rhythm.

They performed clinical trials on animals and then on patients. The results, Bermingham says, were compelling. In the animal trials, “the level of effect was similar to Prozac.’’ Early data from human trials show a statistically significant improvement in symptoms.

Most devices that have been tried to treat depression have been too extreme to gain much traction. Electroconvulsive therapy, for example, uses such an enormous electric shock that it has to be performed under anesthesia. Deep brain stimulation, which has been studied but not approved, requires a pacemaker-like device to be implanted in the brain. Tal’s device is small enough to fit on a table and is no more involved than a standard imaging test.

Arlene Weintraub

When Xconomy checked in on the epigenetics start-up Constellation Pharmaceuticals in 2009, chief executive Mark Goldsmith declined to disclose details about the company’s pipeline. These days, he’s more forthcoming. On June 6, during the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago, Constellation said it had added $15 million to its Series B venture financing, bringing the total raised to $70 million.

In a later interview, Goldsmith explained that Constellation is focusing on three classes of drug targets, and he used terminology developed by a Rockefeller University epigenetics researcher, David Allis, to describe them: writers, erasers, and readers.

Epigenetics is the study of molecular changes in cells that can activate or deactivate genes without affecting the underlying DNA code. Multiple enzymes — those writers, erasers, and readers — are believed to play a role in epigenetic changes that may promote many diseases, including cancer, which is Constellation’s focus.

Although the science is not completely understood, these enzymes are factors that modulate chromatin — the combination of DNA and the proteins the DNA is wound around in the cell’s nucleus — as a means of turning genes on and off, Goldsmith says. “We think there are drug targets in each of these classes.’’

One of Constellation’s lead programs targets a member of the writer class called EZH2.

Constellation is far from alone in its pursuit of EZH2. Another epigenetics start-up in Cambridge, Epizyme, is also pursuing the enzyme. Epizyme has raised $54 million and scored development deals with GlaxoSmithKline and Eisai Pharmaceuticals.

Goldsmith says Constellation will disclose more drug targets this year. With the funding, he says, “we’ve made dramatic progress. We spent our first two years establishing our platform. Now we can focus on developing a portfolio of products.’’

Arlene Weintraub

■Henri Termeer, former chief executive of Genzyme Corp. in Cambridge, has joined the board of Verastem, a start-up seeking to develop treatments against cancer stem cells. Verastem, cofounded by MIT biologists Robert Weinberg and Eric Lander, raised $16 million in November, in a round that included Longwood Founders Fund, Bessemer Venture Partners, Cardinal Partners, and MPM Capital.

Advanced Technology Ventures, a venture capital firm with offices in Waltham, has let go several members of its investment staff, including Boston-area principals Christian Cortis and Andrew Friendly, according to Dan Primack at Fortune. Cortis joined ATV in 2006; Friendly started in 2007.

This report was compiled by the editors of Xconomy, an online news website focused on the business of technology and innovation. For more New England coverage, visit www.Xconomy.com/boston.