Cerecor raises $16M for PhII study of 'Special K' depression remedy

Baltimore-based Cerecor has gathered up the first half of a $33 million B round, with plans to devote much of that money to a midstage development program for an experimental depression therapy recently punted by a restructuring Merck ($MRK).

In documents filed with the SEC, the biotech noted that it has raised $16.2 million of a planned $33.2 million round. New Enterprise Associates, Apple Tree Partners and MPM Capital led the round, which is also going to fund R&D efforts on its catechol-O-methyltransferase inhibitor platform for conditions "characterized by impairment of executive function and working memory."

Cerecor's lead program, CERC-301, aims to test the theory that blocking the NMDA pathway can swiftly and dramatically lift symptoms of major depression, even in patients who have been treatment-resistant for years. The drug is an NR2B inhibitor, and Cerecor plans to have Phase II data on 135 subjects in hand by the end of this year.

Much of the work on the pathway has revolved around the party drug ketamine, or Special K, which is known to have a big impact on NMDA, if only for brief periods. A string of short, early-stage trials using the drug has highlighted its quick effect. The advantage of ketamine is that it appears to repair damage to the brain's complex neuronal signaling system. 

But drug developers trying to pursue new ketamine-based therapies with a durable effect but without the hallucinations and other side effects that make Special K a party drug--a list that includes AstraZeneca--have run into a series of setbacks. J&J ($JNJ) has pushed a nasal formulation of the drug, esketamine, into Phase II and dubbed it one of their top experimental therapies.

AstraZeneca ($AZN) had a version of ketamine--AZD6765--in Phase II but quickly and quietly killed the project after it failed the second of two midstage studies. At the time, AstraZeneca offered no detailed explanation of the data or what went wrong with the program. The failure also attracted none of the big news coverage associated with success.

Cerecor is led by Blake Paterson, the founder and former CEO at Alba Therapeutics. The chairman is former Celgene CEO Sol Barer, who recently packaged four biotechs into a single drug developer, RestorGenex, which is focused on dermatology, ocular diseases and women's health.

"This financing enables Cerecor to continue to advance our compounds in nervous system disorders, including completion of Phase II development of CERC-301, which has the potential to save lives for patients experiencing major depressive disorder with suicidal ideation. We are building on intravenous ketamine's extensive clinical experience with a more selective and specific oral agent that has the potential for improved safety," said Paterson in a statement.

- here's the SEC document
- get the release