Third Rock startup Sage banks $20M as it 'thinks big' about CNS drugs

Sage Therapeutics CEO Jeffrey Jonas

Just months after recruiting a crew of experienced professionals to handle Sage Therapeutics, Third Rock Ventures has joined hands with Arch Venture Partners to fund the second leg of their R&D odyssey in CNS diseases with a $20 million B round.

Third Rock launched Sage with a $37.8 million Series A that followed a classic pattern for the busy venture group. Third Rock co-founder Kevin Starr took the initial role as interim CEO, bringing together some experts in the field to come to grips with some difficult scientific obstacles that have derailed a considerable amount of research work among Big Pharma companies in recent years. Taking a new approach to the allosteric modulation of GABAAand NMDA receptors, Cambridge, MA-based Sage believes it can steer clear of the remarkable placebo effects that helped blight the results for companies like GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), forcing a retreat from important parts of this field. And it has its eye on some rare conditions as well as common ailments like depression.

"Sage has made tremendous progress since launching two years ago, and we expect to have as many as 5 programs in clinical studies by this time next year," said CEO Jeffrey Jonas. "This funding will support our continued evolution into a development and commercial stage company that could transform the treatment landscape for a broad range of serious CNS diseases. We are also gaining a very skilled board member in Bob Nelsen and look forward to adding his strategic leadership to our team."

The lead program at the company is a new treatment for status epilepticus, or persistent brain seizures, which afflicts 150,000 people in the U.S. and kills around 20,000 people each year. That treatment should be in Phase II before the end of this year and already produced one positive outcome for a patient who had been in a drug-induced coma for three months.

The company currently has 22 fulltime staffers. And Jonas says he and the Third Rock founders are on board to grow the company into a significant player in the CNS field.

"They're willing to think big," Jonas tells FierceBiotech about the Third Rock group. And Sage execs are thinking big as well, swiftly assembling a drug pipeline and preparing to add partners to pursue a mix of new therapies for CNS as it stays independent. 

Many of the problems that contributed to Big Pharma's setbacks in the field can be attributed to poor trial designs, bad patient selection criteria and a fatal devotion to "zombie" programs that should have been killed at the end of Phase II, says Jonas. But despite their retreat, many of the big companies have remained keenly interested in the area, fully aware of the market opportunities that await any successful developer. And the biotech has been setting up dozens of partnering meetings, with an eye to begin striking deals in the next six months. A key candidate for partnering is their program for procedural sedation, which aims to develop a much better alternative for propofol, which is used in procedures like colonoscopies.

Jonas is an experienced hand. He joined Sage from Shire ($SHPG), where he had run R&D for the specialty pharma unit and then headed the regenerative medicines arm before being place on administrative leave. He had settled an age discrimination case with Shire before taking over at Sage, where he was joined by AstraZeneca ($AZN) veteran Stephen Kanes in the CMO role and Kimi Iguchi as CFO.

In addition to raising close to $58 million in venture cash, Sage has also won a $10 million grant from the NIH to work on Fragile X syndrome.

- here's the press release

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