Pursuit of Scientific Challenges Drives New CODA CSO Susan Catalano

CODA CSO Nancy Stigliano_CODA

CODA CSO Susan Catalano, Ph.D./courtesy of CODA Biotherapeutics

Susan Catalano, Ph.D., joined CODA Biotherapeutics as chief scientific officer after 14 years as CEO of Cognition Therapeutics, the company she founded in 2007 and took public in 2021. While still focused on neurologic diseases, her new role required switching from Alzheimer’s disease to epilepsy and pioneering a brand-new category of therapeutic: chemogenetics.

BioSpace (BSP): What is unique about CODA’s approach to therapeutics?

Susan Catalano (SC): CODA is one of the only companies that has a chemogenetic approach to therapeutics. Chemogenetics is a combination of a gene therapy product that is delivered via an adeno-associated virus (AAV) and activated by a small molecule. This unique approach lets us tune the therapeutic response with much more precision than possible with most gene therapies. This, essentially, is a pioneering approach to therapy and promises a real paradigm shift in how we treat neurological diseases.

BSP: What’s your current challenge at CODA?

SC: CODA already has delivered preclinical proof of concept for its chemogenetic platform. The lead drug is an engineered ligand-gated ion channel receptor that, when activated in the brain, has demonstrated the ability to reduce spontaneous seizures in preclinical epilepsy models.

Our next challenge is to advance the lead drug through development and toward clinical proof of concept, where we can assess its impact on the disease and on patients’ lives. We have a world-class team that’s up for that challenge. I really look forward to leading it through that accomplishment and in applying that technology to other diseases as we expand and advance our pipeline.

BSP: Of your many accomplishments, of which are you most proud?

SC: I’ve spent my career making new scientific discoveries and, most importantly, turning those discoveries into medicines that reached the clinic. I led the team that discovered Rigel’s Aurora kinase inhibitor that went to the clinic for solid tumors. CT-1812 (an oral brain-penetrating small molecule), which is in advanced Phase II clinical trials at Cognition Therapeutics to modify Alzheimer’s disease, is another example.

BSP: Why did you decide to join CODA?

SC: After 14 years of working on the same scientific problem, it was time for a new scientific challenge. CODA's founding technology is quite exciting, and it truly does represent a paradigm shift in the way neurological diseases can be treated. Also, there is the opportunity to work in several therapeutic areas, since CODA’s technology can impact multiple diseases and disorders. CODA offered exactly the kind of scientific challenge I was looking for.

BSP: What set you on the path to becoming a chief scientific officer?

SC: My journey on this career path started at Barnard College, where I majored in biology and English literature. I loved science, and right after college got a job as a technician in Carol Mason’s lab at New York University. From that point on, I was hooked. Studying neuroscience and the mysteries of the brain was what I wanted to do with my life.

BSP: You led your previous company, Cognition Therapeutics, from the initial idea through Phase II clinical trials and to an initial public offer (IPO). What did you learn on the journey?

SC: I learned a lot about leadership from the Cognition experience. Not many scientists have had an opportunity to lead a company from an idea, through a Phase II clinical program and then to an IPO. I also was a member of the board of directors for that journey, which added to the perspective I was able to acquire. It was a great experience.

Operationally, I think I learned how to work with a small team to accomplish great things with very little turnover.

Strategically, I think I learned a lot about working effectively with managers, key opinion leaders, company leaders and board members to formulate and execute on the many scientific strategic decisions that need to be made along the way, including strategic decisions about capital raises and deployments that need to happen to make all of those accomplishments possible.

BSP: Are there any lessons you’d like to pass along?

SC: Leadership is an art form. More specifically, teamwork is important, and the CSO has a pivotal role in creating a highly motivated organization, including working effectively with board members and investors to rally support around the work for innovative science.

The ability to communicate excitement about the science is a key part of the job. That has an element of teaching in terms of the ability to explain something clearly, simply and precisely, and in a way that creates excitement. Diplomatic skills also are important.

BSP: Is there anything you know now that you wish you'd known years ago, when you first started your career?

SC: I wish I had known how much fun it was going to be, when I was training for an academic career and was hesitant to jump into an industry career track. It would have been good to know early-on how scientifically challenging and rewarding being in industry would be.

What I discovered is that making medicine – compared to academic science – is like writing a sonnet versus writing free verse. In academia, you're free to pursue a positive result wherever that takes you, and to go in directions that can open up entire new branches of science.

But in the biopharmaceutical industry, you have one job: to make a medicine. That's a highly constrained problem that, nevertheless, has an enormous synthetic feature to it. You have to consider every system in the body…every biological function…as part of the path to an effective medicine. That’s incredibly rewarding. It's like a continuous learning process, in which you’re getting several PhDs on top of the one you already have.

BSP: In your spare time, what do you like to do?

SC: I love backpacking and hiking. Being out in nature puts me in touch with a much longer time scale, and allows me to reconnect with what's really important.

I recently have hiked part of the Appalachian Trail around Delaware Water Gap in Pennsylvania. It’s a bit more social than the Pacific Crest Trail – certainly not as remote – and gorgeous in the fall when the leaves are changing color. I’ve done parts of the Great Allegheny Passage, (a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy path that connects Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland at the Cumberland Gap and then links to the old C&O Canal towpath to go into Washington D.C.) The whole thing is about 335 miles long and is just gorgeous!

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