Karuna hires another ex-Lilly scientist in quest to resurrect CNS drug

Karuna unveiled news of Felder’s appointment alongside details of the promotion of Giorgio Attardo. (Getty/sudok1)

Christian Felder has joined Karuna Pharmaceuticals as VP of discovery research. The appointment reunites Felder with xanomeline, a once-failed Alzheimer’s disease drug he helped through early development while at Eli Lilly.

Lilly took xanomeline deep into the clinic in the 1990s, generating evidence that the M1 agonist improves cognition along the way, only for tolerability data to bring it crashing to a halt. With more than half of the participants in the high dose arm of one study dropping out—and efforts to create more selective, less toxic variants floundering—xanomeline landed on the scrapheap.

Around 20 years later, the team behind Karuna hatched a plan to resurrect xanomeline by using a second drug to counter its effects outside of the brain. Steven Paul, the Sage and Voyager co-founder who worked on xanomeline at Lilly, came on board as CEO and investors committed $42 million.

Now, Karuna has hired another member of the original xanomeline development team. Felder spent 21 years at Lilly. Over his career, Felder has published tens of papers on muscarinic receptors and drugs that target them, including xanomeline. At Karuna, Felder will get another chance to use his extensive knowledge of M1 and GPCRs more broadly to help get a muscarinic drug to market in indications including Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.

That prospect led Paul to persuade Felder to rejoin the drug industry around a year after he left Lilly and took up a post in academia.

“Chris was instrumental in the early development of xanomeline at Eli Lilly & Co. His rich neurologic and psychiatric drug discovery experience will be valuable as we advance and expand our pipeline,” Paul said in a statement.

Karuna unveiled news of Felder’s appointment alongside details of the promotion of Giorgio Attardo to the position of VP of chemistry, manufacturing and controls and preclinical development. Attardo joined Karuna from Lilly subsidiary Avid Radiopharmaceuticals in May. At Avid, Attardo advanced CNS imaging agents into clinical development.