GRAND RAPIDS — Tetra Discovery Partners LLC, a developer of new treatments for major neurological conditions based on PDE4 modulation in the brain, announced it has been awarded a five-year cooperative agreement by the National Institutes of Health.

The award will support Tetra’s efforts to develop a new drug to treat mild cognitive impairment, which is typically associated with aging and often precedes and accompanies Alzheimer’s disease.

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Tetra’s award includes up to $1.5 million in direct funding and access to millions of additional dollars worth of contracted research services. The company estimated that the total value of the NIH award to be worth at least $10 million over the project’s anticipated five-year period.

The award was made through the Blueprint Neurotherapeutics Network, a recently launched NIH initiative involving the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute of Aging.

Under the terms of its cooperative agreement with NIH, Tetra will retain the intellectual property related to its research and be responsible for the commercialization of the new drug.

Said Mark Gurney, Tetra’s founder and president: “We expect that the funding and access to industry resources provided by the BPN will help support the significant acceleration of Tetra’s work, which holds real promise for the millions of individuals and families contending with age-related cognitive decline and the ravages of Alzheimer’s.”

Tetra’s research focuses on designing drugs that inhibit phosphodiesterase 4 (PDE4), a key enzyme in the brain that controls the biochemical process of memory.  The compounds designed by Tetra act like a type of molecular glue, closing a “lid” over the PDE4 catalytic site. This approach to preventing the enzyme from functioning has been shown to improve efficacy and tolerability over previous compounds that simply inhibit the enzyme altogether. Tetra’s NIH-funded work will focus on developing a treatment for mild cognitive impairment, which includes memory difficulties as well as other changes in thinking skills and sequencing tasks. The subtle cognitive decline associated with MCI may also precede the development of Alzheimer’s disease, often by many years, and can affect an individual’s ability to work, hold a job and cope with daily activities.

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Launched in 2011, the BPN program has been fostered by NIH Director Francis S. Collins, with support from the Institutes’ other directors, as part of the agency’s heightened emphasis on translational medicine. It marks a first-of-its-kind collaboration for NIH — enabling award recipients to leverage resources across 15 agency institutes and centers, as well as the expertise of outside consultants and contractors — and involves making a total of $50 million in funding available to selected academic and industry-based researchers. Tetra is the first award recipient to be notified in the program’s second year and one of only a few non-academic teams accepted to date.

Key members of the project team led by Tetra include Alex Burgin, chief scientific officer of Emerald Bio ( and Professor James M. O’Donnell, assistant dean for research, and Dr. Han-ting Zhang of West Virginia University.

Dr. Gurney noted:  “The BPN will become a natural complement to Tetra’s lean business structure, which is defined by minimal staff, a network of expert outside collaborators — as exemplified by the key contributions of Alex, James and Han-Ting, as well as the structural biology scientific team at Emerald — and a combination of private and public funding sources. Importantly, our work has been facilitated by the incubator services of the West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative, which include affordable access to customized lab space, leading-edge instrumentation and proximity to world-class healthcare, research and education institutions such as Grand Valley State University’s Cell and Molecular Biology Department. This model has contributed to Tetra’s early success, enabling us to employ minimal capital by providing us with the ability to spend virtually every dollar on strategic projects vs. infrastructure and equipment.”

If its NIH-funded project proceeds as the company anticipates, Tetra plans to begin Phase I clinical studies in as soon as three to four years.

“We believe there is an important market opportunity for new treatment approaches addressing cognitive decline,” Gurney said.  “Current global sales of the five approved Alzheimer’s drugs are estimated at $4 billion annually.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association, these drugs are effective for less than one year in about half of patients who take them, and their utility wanes as the disease becomes more severe.  In addition, the drugs currently approved to treat cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s do not help individuals with MCI, which is a significantly larger patient population.”

Tetra is also exploring the ability of its compounds to restore cognitive function in patients who have suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI). TBI frequently involves the front of the brain, which is important for functions such as remembering and sequencing tasks.

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