BI broadens research pact with Vanderbilt University to develop GPCR drugs for brain disorders

Germany’s Boehringer Ingelheim has been working to boost its research capabilities in central nervous system (CNS) disorders, making moves over the past year aimed specifically at adding compounds to its pipeline to address Alzheimer’s disease (AD), schizophrenia and depression. Now it’s teaming up with Vanderbilt University to develop novel small molecules that modulate brain circuits.

BI announced that the pact with Vanderbilt—which follows four cancer-focused research partnerships the two already have—will focus on compounds that target two different G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). The potential of targeting these receptors in a variety of CNS disorders has long been of interest to BI. Just last month, in fact, the company teamed up with Domain Therapeutics to develop GPCR drugs.

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Bernd Sommer, Ph.D., global head of CNS disease research for BI, said in the statement that regulating “maladaptive” brain circuits could provide relief for a variety of symptoms, including memory loss, social withdrawal and the lack of motivation. Developing drugs that can target those wayward circuits could be “the key to alleviate symptoms in neuropsychiatric conditions and bring relief to patients suffering from these debilitating disorders,” he said.

BI remains committed to CNS disorders despite setbacks it has seen in its pipeline. Its schizophrenia candidate, BI 409306, inhibits phosphodiesterase 9A and is in midstage trials. But the company had to abandon plans to develop the drug in Alzheimer’s early last year after it failed to outperform a placebo in clinical trials.

BI isn’t alone in its enthusiasm for GPCR approaches to treating disease. Last year, startup Escient Pharmaceuticals nabbed a $40 million series A funding round to develop a pipeline of GPCR drugs, some of which will be targeted at neuro-immuno-inflammatory diseases.

Now BI is strengthening its GPCR expertise by partnering with the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery (VCNDD), which works to translate academic discoveries to marketable treatments. One of the center’s priorities has been to better understand the role of GPCRs in modulating brain activity, according to the announcement.

The deal expands BI’s partnership with Vanderbilt, which until now has been entirely focused on oncology. Last March, the company teamed up with the university to develop drugs that inhibit the myeloid cell leukemia 1 (MCL1) protein. Earlier the two formed partnerships around cancer-causing mutations in the KRAS gene.