Yale neurology and neuroscience professor Stephen Strittmatter has made a discovery that has long eluded researchers—how to regrow damaged nerve fibers after an injury. If effective—and animal studies show real promise—the discovery would provide doctors a way to treat what has thus far been untreatable—spinal cord injury. With funding from the National Institutes of Health translational funding program, Strittmatter is relaunching his former company, Axerion, as ReNetX Bio (short for Restoration of Neural Networks) which will take his breakthrough drug into clinical trials.
“It’s a completely unmet need,” says Erika R. Smith, ReNetX CEO. “Steve is a global leader in neuroscience and he is committed to the solution.” Before joining the company, Smith led programs at Yale supporting university startups including the YEI Innovation Fund and the Blavatnik Fund for Innovation.
Strittmatter, who serves as Director of Yale’s Department of Cellular Neuroscience, Neurodegeneration and Repair, has been trying to solve the puzzle of re-growing damaged nerves for the past decade. When someone is injured and suffers nerve damage, he says, “it interrupts the fibers between the nerve cells but leaves a lot of them alive. We need to reconnect them—to reestablish the neural network.” It’s not about stopping the damage, he says, but getting the body to repair the damage. According to national estimates, up to 347,000 people are currently living with spinal cord injury in the US.
In the early 2000s, Strittmatter zeroed in on three proteins of interest—Nogo-A, MAG and OMgp—all of which limit the ability of nerve fibers—or axons—to grow. His team then found a receptor for these proteins and created a decoy—dubbed the “Nogo Trap”—that prevents the nerve fiber receptors from “seeing” the inhibitors. When Strittmatter put this molecule into the spinal fluid of rats with damaged spinal cords—nearly a third went from not being able to walk to full mobility, even after a three-month delay period between injury and treatment. Findings were published in the Journal of Neuroscience and Nature among others.
To date there are no other successful treatments available for patients with spinal cord injury. “Today, if you’re in a car wreck and your spine is damaged, there will usually be surgery to stabilize the bone,” says Strittmatter. “There may be blood pressure and liver problems and these will be treated. There is physical therapy.” But when it comes to possible restorative treatment, it doesn’t exist. “Some molecules and drugs are being tested,” he says, “but as a rule they are focused on starting treatment right at the time of injury.” The drug he is developing is designed to work “after the nervous system has settled down and someone is left in a wheelchair—that’s the stage we’re trying to treat.”
Strittmatter cautions that until they get to clinical trials it is impossible to know if they’ll see similar results in humans. “It’s been my goal for 10 years to get to clinical trial,” he says. “It’s incredibly exciting to see this progress.”
ReNetX was formed with business expertise from the Yale Office of Cooperative Research. The company will be based in New Haven and anticipates closing on their first round of funding later this year, allowing them to begin the long-awaited clinical trials.