Grant boosts studies on MS

Cognosci, an RTP firm, will use the $330,000 to help it develop a treatment.

Staff WriterMay 25, 2010 

A small Research Triangle Park company developing a promising treatment for multiple sclerosis has won a prestigious award to pay for further research.

Cognosci will use the $330,000 grant to continue evaluating an experimental compound that shows potential in helping rebuild the central nervous system, rather than just blocking damage from MS.

It's not a lot of money for a seven-employee company that has attracted more than $18 million, mostly in federal grants, since it was founded in May 2000. But the award does elevate Cognosci's reputation and could help its leaders land new partnerships.

The money was one of two initial grants handed out by Fast Forward, a nonprofit organization set up by theNational MS Society to accelerate the development of promising treatments, and EMD Serono, the subsidiary of a German drugmaker that's also working on MS drugs.

The other grant was given to a New Zealand company.

"The promise of current research to change the MS landscape is exciting," said Fast Forward president Timothy Coetzee, in a prepared statement. "We are proud to be able to provide resources for those working to end MS and look forward to seeing the results stemming from these projects."

Cognosci's grant also includes a license option for EMD Serono. That means that if Cognosci's early testing continues to be successful, EMD could invest more money to help test the drug in patients and commercialize it, said Dale Christensen, Cognosci's vice president of research and business development.

The treatment is still being tested on animals, and it could take eight or nine years before it's approved and on the market. But Cognosci could start doing clinical trials on humans within a couple of years.

"It's really not that long before patients could start seeing benefits," said Christensen, whose father died from MS. "That helps keep our energy up."

This region is home to dozens of small drug-development companies hoping to discover a blockbuster treatment, many based on research at thearea's universities. A few thrive on their own, while some attract larger companies to buy them. Many won't make it through the rigorous regulatory obstacles.

The area also is home to other players in the MS field. Biogen Idec, for example, makes MS drugs at its RTP campus.

Cognosci was started by Mike Vitek, a neurobiologist at Duke University. The company is also working on treatments for Alzheimer's disease and traumatic brain injury.

In recent years, company officials had sought venture capital money to pay for further research. But venture capitalists who were interested "wanted us to shut down everything but our MS work and move the company to San Diego," Christensen said.

Instead, officials continued to attract federal grants from the National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense. The company also received $143,317 in funding from the N.C. Biotechnology Center.

And now Cognosci is pursuing partnerships with larger drug companies that want to invest in promising products, Christensen said. "You retain a lot more scientific control," he said.

alan.wolf@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4572

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