Business of the Brain

It’s that time of year where the non-New Englanders are feeling smug.  It’s not even winter (starts Saturday) yet, and we’ve had close to two feet of snow.  The pug labyrinths have been dug, and it will probably be March before we see the ground again.  Sigh.

brain3dlobesLast week we attended a seminar on the Business of the Brain.  The speakers were from Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute and the Alzheimer’s Association.  Parkinson’s, Lew Gehrig’s Disease and Alzheimer’s were discussed.   There are a host of other brain-related conditions beyond those that are neurodegenerative.  These include, but are not limited to pain, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, tinnitus and limb loss

The bottom line seems to be that beyond certain pharmaceutical companies and the care giving industry, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of commercial businesses.  But that didn’t stop the program from going far into the evening.    No surprise:  The major disease feared in those over the age of 60 is Alzheimer’s.  Below 60 years old, Alzheimer’s is the number two concern, after cancer.

There were two take-aways:

  • Commercial brain-related businesses are much smaller than we would have thought.  However, these companies are targeting huge addressable markets.  Research and treatment of current maladies related to the brain will eventually be treated through some form of stem cell protocol;
  • Prevention and care are the near term markets.

Curious about the level of activity in the field, we reviewed the Neurotech Investing and Partnering Conference Agenda, and found several interesting smaller companies. This has the same look and feel of the nanotechnology field.  The neuro-technology companies include:

Alzheimer’s and Cognitive Disorders Chronic and Neuropathic Pain Psychiatry
  • Cambridge Cognition
  • Acumen Pharmaceuticals
  • IPierian
  • EnVivo Pharmaceuticals
  •  Spinifex Pharmaceuticals
  • Depomed
  • SPR Therapeutics
  • Myoscience
  •  BeioBehavioral Diagnostics
  • Mnemosyne Pharmaceuticals
  • Naurex
  • Nordocs
CNS Drug and Device Development Movement Disorders:  Parkinson’s, ALS Stroke, TBI and SCI
  • Aptuit
  • Medpace
  • MentorCatalyst
  •  AbbVie
  • FPRT Biosciences
  • Neurophave
  • Genervon
  • NDI Medical
  •  Edge Therapeutics
  • ZZ Biotech
  • Sevident
  • Vittamed

The larger pharmaceutical companies involved in this area are Pfizer, Forest Laboratories, Medtronic, and Biogen Idec, AstraZeneca, Hoffman LaRoche and Shire Pharmaceuticals.  For now, the business for firms like BlueLake is private placements and mergers and acquisitions.  I did not find any publicly owned companies that were pure plays.

One Company that is taking the iterative, non-pharmaceutical approach is BalanceTek, which is addressing the lack of stability of older patients.  BalanceTek designs the Balance Belt, that detects when a patient is leaning in such a way that they are in danger of falling.  The belt alerts the patient through vibration, so that the patient has the ability to autocorrect, and prevent the fall.  The premise of the Balance Belt is simple:  it helps people stay mobile longer by enhancing their sense of balance.

I hope I’m wrong, but I came away from the Business of the Brain seminar with the impression that there aren’t going to be any large-scale remedies for Alzheimer’s, or most other neurological conditions, in the near future.   Not in my lifetime, and probably not in my stepdaughter’s lifetime.  Even more dismaying is that by the time one is symptomatic, it is too late to do anything about many of these diseases.  They don’t regress.

Most, if not all of the remedies revolve around stem cell research.  Which is much more complex than one might think, with many, many variables.  When my husband asked about stem cell therapy as a potential remedy for certain spinal cord injury issues, the question was quickly dismissed.   Instead, he was told that stem cell therapy is very, very strong with potentially unpredictable, harmful results.  Cancer was the first unwanted condition noted, that could result from stem cell treatments.  Needless to say, the idea was quickly tabled.

However, at least in the case of Alzheimer’s, there is something you can do:  vigorous exercise.  It is the one thing one can do for oneself that is known to significantly retard, if not prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

On that note, I’m off to my yoga class.

Margaret Johns

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