JACKSON – A Jackson-based startup, Nitrome Biosciences, has discovered a unique treatment for Parkinson’s disease that could halt the disease's inexorable progression and create a multibillion-dollar enterprise, helping to diversify Wyoming's economy in the process.
For years, Wyoming has struggled to find an economic identity separate from energy production. The state’s heavy reliance on the energy industry has created a budget that fluctuates wildly with energy prices.
For that reason, Gov. Matt Mead and many economic development agencies have pushed to diversify the economy into technology and other arenas. The diversity would add to the three-legged economic crutch of energy, tourism and agriculture that now props up the state’s budget.
“We need immediate and measurable results now,” Mead said during the 2016 Governor’s Business Forum, going on to cite technology and manufacturing as target growth areas.
And with Nitrome Bio-sciences’ recent discovery, pharmaceuticals could become another growth area in the state.
“No one’s going to reverse Parkinson’s disease,” Nitrome’s founding scientist, Irene Griswold-Prenner, said in an exclusive interview. “But we will halt it.”
Looking at her resume, this sentiment may be optimistic, but it’s clearly not bluster. She’s a pharmacologist and cellular physiologist who, using a Nobel Prize-winning approach, developed the first drug candidate that could slow or stop dementia in Alzheimer's patients. Her research with a former employer, iPierian, created value of $725 million plus royalties.
And her medicinal research has spanned everything from neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s to cancer and vision-treatment drugs.
The Parkinson’s “play”
Much as energy companies develop “plays” where they have exclusive mineral rights, Griswold-Prenner’s novel approach to Parkinson’s research could become a big pharmaceutical “play” that could contribute big money to Wyoming’s business sector.
“It’s a disease-modifying drug for Parkinson's,” she said. “It could earn tens of billions for investors and will change the lifestyle of Parkinson’s disease patients.”
And it could be in clinical trials as soon as 2021, Griswold-Prenner said.
Essentially, Parkinson’s disease results from brain degeneration that stems from the accumulation of “gunk” that kills neurons, lowers dopamine levels, and produces the tremors and rigidity for which Parkinson’s is known.
Griswold-Prenner’s research has focused on inhibiting nitrase, the enzyme responsible for producing the degenerative brain gunk. The dis-ease affects roughly 1 million Americans, according to Florida Hospital.
The worst part? There’s no cure. Current treatments focus on symptoms, rather than the underlying cause or even halting the debilitating progression of the disease.
That’s where 15 years worth of research in Griswold-Prenner’s hands could change everything for people with Parkinson's.
Feeding the disease
According to Griswold-Prenner, nitrase is a relatively unknown, but hungry enzyme eating its way through a Parkinson's victim’s nervous system like Ms. Pac-Man.
“That mouth is where the reaction occurs, so we’re trying to put something into the mouth so she can’t eat anymore,” Griswold-Prenner said. “We need to have a compound that fits in there.”
But Griswold-Prenner doubted her chances of finding a perfect-fit com-pound to stuff in Ms. Pac-Man’s mouth, because her training wasn’t directly in medicinal chemistry and she had limited off-the-shelf options for compounds as a self-funded researcher.
She had started the research behind Nitrome at Elan Pharmaceuticals as a side project. But when Elan went under after overextending itself prior to the financial meltdown of 2007-08, she didn’t want her research to die with it.
So she regularly contacted the company to see if they would sell her the programs she knew could go somewhere, including the research and preclinical assets laying the foundation for satiating Ms. Pac-Man’s hunger in Parkinson’s patients.
It wasn’t until a generic drug maker purchased Elan that they decided to sell off the assets Griswold-Prenner wanted, saying the research would do them no good, since their expertise was in copying, rather than leading the way on new drugs. But the sale came with a catch: the acquiring company wanted Griswold-Prenner to purchase all of the preclinical programs without cherry-picking the most promising.
So she formed Imago Pharmaceuticals with two colleagues to buy the research, which was the result of millions of dollars in spending over the years. And they made the purchase without venture capital.
“We sold or partnered on the programs we couldn’t take forward on our own and got a number of grants,” she said, pointing to the Michael J. Fox Foundation and others. “The money from selling the other programs and the grants allowed us develop the program we wanted to.”
With that complicated past, Nitrome became a self-funded attempt to discover a compound that could stop Parkinson’s progress. She collected about five candidate enzyme-blocking compounds she thought might fit in Ms. Pac-Man’s mouth nicely, and started shoving them down her throat in test reactions at a friend’s lab in Jackson Hole.
Griswold-Prenner said she could barely believe the results.
“One of them worked,” she said. “Usually you need to try hundreds or thousands to give you the combination.”
And with that, it was time to go after funding.
Since age 8, Griswold-Prenner knew what she wanted to do. As a self-proclaimed “serious kid,” she had a friend with lymphoma, a type of cancer that can break down an immune system and worse. And when people started asking her what she wanted to do when she grew up, she had a ready answer because of that friend.
“I wanted to cure cancer,” she said. She originally went into medicine, thinking doctors cured cancer, only to discover it was scientists behind the scenes who made the breakthroughs.
“Even though I didn’t know what I was talking about at age 8, it was clearly what I was meant to do,” she said of her love of science. “Research is a game. You go into a lab (and) learn something entirely new. For a short period of time, you’re the only one who knows the answer to this problem. It’s thrilling.”
And in her time as a scientist, she has encountered plenty of potential paths forward blockaded by research that wasn’t hitting the mark. But on certain projects, everything seems to gel.
“If we do things right, in the end we’re actually helping people, and that’s a unique job description,” Griswold-Prenner said. “It’s a lot of fun and a lot of work, and usually you fail, but when you get that thing that works – and this feels that way – you know you’re on the right path.”
It’s not just the research that’s gone well. Since making her key discovery, funding has been falling into place from various sources that will push the project forward.
Notably, Casper-based angel investor group Breakthrough 307 has invested an undisclosed sum in Nitrome Biosciences. The group cites as its charter “to provide early-stage seed capital to high-growth potential companies in Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain West, while producing positive returns for investors.”
Bill McDowell, a retired investor at Breakthrough 307 who has taken up the position of lead interface with Nitrome, said Griswold-Prenner’s presentation was her first ask for funding, and it was one the group couldn’t refuse.
“The membership listened to the presentation, and I believe assessed Irene’s background and abilities and knowledge and said, ‘We want to participate with this lady,’” McDowell said, adding that Nitrome’s first hire happened soon after funding.
He also said Nitrome is one of only five or six projects the group has chosen to fund so far.
Beyond that, Nitrome has won two startup competitions: one in Jackson with a cash prize of $2,500, and another in the San Francisco Bay area that gave her fledgling company access to free lab space.
The latter has forced her to split her time between Jackson and San Francisco as she ramps up, which she admits could be far worse.
“My office here in Jackson is in my home with a view of the Tetons,” she said.
If all goes as planned, Nitrome will eventually split what could be a multibillion-dollar business between both locations, allowing Wyoming to beef up its research economy and be ground zero for major pharmaceutical breakthroughs that could chain into halting multiple neurodegenerative disorders.
“Not everyone knows this is possible,” Griswold-Prenner said, indicating the prospect of such a big company doing important things isn’t intimidating to her. “I just find it exciting.”