Sensorium Scores $30M to Change Risk-Value Proposition in CNS Drug Discovery

Dick Simon_Sensorium

Sensorium Co-founder and CEO Dick Simon/courtesy of Sensorium Therapeutics

Neuropsychiatric diseases like anxiety and depression are incredibly complex. Sensorium Therapeutics, which closed a $30 million Series A Tuesday, is embracing this complexity with nature-inspired psychoactive medicines. 

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and benzodiazepines have been prescribed to treat depression and anxiety for decades – but they are not without risk. They also don’t work for everyone.

A recent study found that 2.8 million Americans – 31% of those treated with existing medications – had treatment-resistant depression.

Sensorium's founders believe understanding the role of psychoactive molecules like plants and fungi in the brain could lead to more effective, targeted therapeutics for these conditions and more. It’s a hypothesis Santé Ventures, Route 66 Ventures, CU Healthcare Innovation Fund and several others were willing to invest in.  

Kevin Lalande, founding managing director and chief investment officer at Santé said what differentiates Sensorium is "the combination of a fundamental focus on neuroplasticity as the key mechanism driving therapeutic benefit along with the exploration of novel chemical space using compounds that have reported mood-altering or anxiolytic effects.”

Sensorium is researching the “vast white space of thousands of natural products” with long histories of human use, said Dick Simon, chief executive and co-founder of Sensorium, in an interview with BioSpace.

“Once you start with something that works, that kind of changes everything.”

Jacob Hooker, Ph.D., co-founder of Sensorium and professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School, shared how the company’s human-first biodynamic discovery platform (BPD) could change the risk-value proposition in this space.

Jacob Hooker_Sensorium Therapeutics“I'm always struck at the kind of empirical risk we take when we go from the preclinical model system into the human,” he told BioSpace. “There's an inherent disconnection between the science we're doing and the hypothesis of how we're treating the human.”

The BPD enables Sensorium to reverse-engineer evidence like safety and efficacy based on human experience to determine the molecules that have the right mechanistic underpinnings to be effective. The platform also attempts to overcome this inherent disconnection by using human-induced pluripotent stem cells differentiated into various cultures.

“For me, it just fundamentally changes the kind of risk-value proposition of how CNS drug discovery is mostly being done currently,” Hooker said.

Sensorium is coming at the complexity of neuropsychiatric diseases with a multifactorial set of perspectives.

Co-founder Dr. Jerry Rosenbaum, M.D., is psychiatrist-in-chief emeritus and director emeritus at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital. Rosenbaum told BioSpace he tends to see patients who have suffered longer and have been more resistant to initial treatments.

“Very few of them are on a single medication,” he said. “The idea that picking a single target and drugging it is going to cure something as complicated as a brain disorder…is quite naïve.” By starting with something that seems to have an effect and being agnostic about it, “we expect to find molecules that are already complicated, that already involve multiple targets.” 

Jerry Rosenbaum_Sensorium TherapeuticsThis, Rosenbaum said, will hopefully give Sensorium an advantage in identifying and optimizing treatments for these conditions.

Reverse Engineering Success 

Hooker added that the company’s high-content information engine will enable it, five or 10 years down the road, to more deeply understand the brain and why Sensorium's molecules work.

“When we have clinical success… we will eventually be able to say what the composite nature of that molecule was and what it did that drove efficacy.” It is only now, in this era of big data science, that scientists can imagine how this polypharmacology is actually working, he said. 

Rosenbaum and Hooker both emphasized that Sensorium does not hope to find nature’s benzodiazepine. Instead, “We are looking for unique pharmacology that achieves that phenotype. We think there's a whole way to engage with the brain that can lead to these downstream responses that people haven’t tapped into,” Hooker said.

The team is also mindful of challenges in the space such as abuse and will filter the database of natural products to determine which do and do not possess those liabilities, he added.

Sensorium expects to begin IND-enabling studies for its first asset, SENS-01 for anxiety and depression, in 2023, with plans to enter the clinic by early 2024.

The co-founders see Sensorium as a platform, and Rosenbaum cited the potential to develop treatments that can work broadly across disorders such as rumination, pain, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.  

Hooker spoke to the shift that is occurring in a neuropsychiatric space that is embracing psychedelics, ketamine and neuroactive steroids.

“There’s kind of this new philosophical shift in how we might approach the brain, but no one is really dissecting it with informatics,” he said. “ I do hope very much that we create a new rule set for how to do mental health drug discovery.” 

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