UPDATED: J&J backs neuro startup BlackThorn in $40M Series A

Johnson & Johnson

The co-founders of autoimmune company Receptos, which Celgene acquired last year for $7.8 billion, are back with their next startup. This time around the Scripps Research Institute academics are the scientific co-founders of a new neurobehavioral disorder startup that’s also backed by Johnson & Johnson, BlackThorn Therapeutics.

BlackThorn aims to succeed in treacherous neuro territory by using physiological measures, rather than just a qualitative clinician assessment, to better define the diseases and their populations. It has raised $40 million in a Series A financing led by Arch Venture Partners with participation from Johnson & Johnson Innovation--JDC, Altitude Life Science Ventures, Mercury Fund, Alexandria Real Estate Equities and an undisclosed crossover fund.

Edward Roberts and Dr. Hugh Rosen, the Scripps researchers behind Receptos, are now scientific co-founders of BlackThorn. The new neuro startup is housed at the South San Francisco location of J&J incubators known as JLABS, although the company is now actively looking for its own San Francisco space.

"Applying neuroscience insights to generate knowledge between underlying patho-physiology of disease potential drug targets gives us the opportunity to develop more targeted treatments," BlackThorn executive chairman Dr. Mark Corrigan told FierceBiotech. "The large unmet needs in the area means there is a significant opportunity to use the developing science understanding brain based to address those needs."

The company already has a lead clinical program set to start Phase II testing: BTRX-246040, a first-in-class antagonist of the nociceptin receptor that was in-licensed from Eli Lilly ($LLY). It also has at least another trio of preclinical candidates that it’s prepping to enter the clinic; these are all based on Rosen and Roberts' work at Scripps.

All this is based on the company’s INFORM platform, which aims to use advanced functional imaging and objective assessment tools to quantify emotion, behavior and cognition to better define neurobehavioral disorders. These diagnoses are more traditionally based on qualitative clinical observations.

Neurobehavioral disorders, including autism spectrum disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and schizophrenia, have typically been described in ways that don’t necessarily relate directly to disease pathology. But BlackThorn hopes to change that. It expects its more precise, physiologically based segmentation of these groups could enable more targeted and less expensive candidate development.

"We expect to advance our two lead programs into the clinic in 2017, while continuing to progress our early discovery efforts and refine our INFORM platform," Corrigan said.

Arch Venture Partners Managing Director Kristina Burow is on the BlackThorn board; Asish Xavier of JJI-JJDC is also a member. Dr. Thomas Daniel, the recent president of research and early development at Celgene ($CELG), is serving as a senior BlackThorn adviser.

“BlackThorn aims for nothing less than to develop new treatments fueled by an understanding of brain physiology and its relationship to neurobehavioral disorders to transform the lives of patients and their families,” summed up Burow in a statement.