Eddie Martucci cofounded Akili in 2011 alongside neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and PureTech, with the goal of creating a brand-new type of medicine—“one that is truly enjoyable.” Akili is developing cognitive therapies delivered through video game interfaces.
The technology, licensed from Gazzaley’s lab at UC San Francisco, targets a neurological system responsible for taking in and prioritizing sensory stimulation. While this is a basic function, it underlies many symptoms of neurological diseases and disorders, such as problems with memory, multitasking and attention.
With its video game-based therapies, Akili aims to diagnose or treat conditions, including ADHD, autism, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injury. Physicians would be able to remotely prescribe, deploy and track this “digital medicine” for any patient, anywhere, the company said.
What makes Akili fierce
“Imagine a patient walking away from a doctor’s office with a diagnosis and downloading to their iPad their actual medicine,” Martucci said. Akili’s approach takes advantage of devices that we already have on hand: Smartphones and tablets.
The company’s leading product, Project: EVO, is currently in a phase 3 trial to evaluate its efficacy in children aged 8 to 12 who have ADHD. The Project: EVO platform is designed to strengthen the visual and motor parts of the brain and help players concentrate without the use of drugs. It is built to have rewards in an “exciting sensory environment,” which leads to high compliance in children.
Akili is investigating the platform’s utility in treating other conditions too, teaming up last year with Autism Speaks to test it in more than 100 people on the autism spectrum. And the tech doesn’t just have therapeutic applications, Akili is also looking into using it for the early detection of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. The video game interface is pared down for its Alzheimer’s screening tool, Martucci said.
In December, Akili and Pfizer presented data showing that Akili’s diagnostic, delivered as a fast-paced video game, can differentiate between patients with and without brain amyloidosis, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. The presence—or absence—of amyloid in patients’ brains was confirmed via PET scan, diagnostic imaging that requires the injection of a radioactive tracer.
Akili’s “digital biomarkers” could potentially become a noninvasive alternative to traditional screening procedures for the neurodegenerative disease, such as PET imaging and lumbar puncture, Martucci said at the time.
Finally, the video game platform could solve some problems patients and their parents may have with pharmacology. Some patients simply don’t respond to drugs, while others experience negative side effects, such as weight loss, growth reduction or appetite suppression. And for one reason or another, some parents prefer their children not to be treated with drugs. These patient groups represent a “relatively big chunk of the market” that Akili could address with its platform.
What to look for
In addition to its partnership with Pfizer, Akili has garnered a fair amount of interest from pharma companies.
“We’re always very open to and appreciate the leverage that collaborations bring up, so we are certainly considering those as well,” Martucci said. Last July, Merck and Amgen were among investors that bumped up Akili’s Series B funding to $42.4 million, which the company pegged for product development and infrastructure.
Over the coming months, Akili will disclose data from other programs, including one in depression, but the company’s biggest milestone on the horizon is reporting the phase 3 data for Project: EVO ADHD, anticipated midyear. If all goes well, the plan is to aggressively push toward regulatory approval and market launch, Martucci said. — Amirah Al Idrus, @FierceBiotech