Daniel R. Pierce, Corporate and IP partner in the Boston office, recently spoke with Chris Barden, CEO of firm client Treventis, about his background, his company’s research into misfolded proteins to develop cures for central nervous system diseases like Alzheimer’s, as well as Chris’ thoughts and experience at the BIO Conference.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up CEO of an emerging life science company?
Sure. My background is really in computational science. I did a lot of work in university looking at how computers could be used to solve problems in chemistry. I did a Ph.D. in computational chemistry, where I was looking at molecules with five atoms in them and getting all kinds of gory details. I decided, after doing that, I really wanted to do something a little bit more practical. So that’s where I got into working in drug discovery.
I’ve been doing work in drug discovery projects for the better part of 20 years now, looking at central nervous system infectious diseases as well as developing cancer drugs. I’m pleased to be involved in a number of projects that have developed pre-clinical candidates, and Treventis is one of the main engines for us to be able to move those things along.
In terms of Treventis, could you talk a little bit about how the company was formed and your experience there?
Treventis was, from day one, operating multinationally, which is a little bit unusual. We had a management team that actually left a Nasdaq-traded pharmaceutical company to be the founding C-suite executives at Treventis. And then we had a pretty big contingent of scientists working in Canada that were developing our concepts and drug design.
I started on the R&D side and then got more involved in trying to manage the Canadian side of the operation. Ultimately, I took the reins from the former CEO, and have been in this current role for seven years or so, driving the company.
Treventis focuses on central nervous system diseases, particularly looking at misfolded proteins as a cause of Alzheimer’s disease. Can you talk about what misfolded proteins are and why they are the focus of your therapeutic research?
Misfolded proteins are essentially proteins that are found in the body that have some part of them, or all of them, that don’t stay in a particular shape.
When we look at most proteins in the body, they get formed and then they fold in a certain way and they more or less stay in that shape for their entire biological lives. But, these misfolded proteins are shapeshifters, and because they can change their shape, sometimes they get into a shape which allows them to basically begin to polymerize. They begin to build copies of themselves and aggregate to make these really big clumps of protein. This is most notorious in Alzheimer’s disease, with the amyloid plaque seen in the brain.
A lot of the drugs that are coming onto the market right now are specifically looking at that amyloid plaque. But there’s also a protein called tau, which is important, and that’s one of the focuses of Treventis. We’re working on ways to keep the tau protein from misfolding, and hopefully we’ll have some disease-modifying potential in Alzheimer’s disease.
One of the ways that Treventis develops its drug candidates is by utilizing your proprietary Common Conformational Morphology technology. Can you talk a little bit about what it is?
Common Conformational Morphology, or CCM, is a concept that we developed fairly early on in the company, and we’ve been developing over the decade-plus that Treventis has been around. CCM looks at the lack of information that we normally have about what a misfolded protein’s three-dimensional shape really is and tries to build computer models that will simulate that. We use those computer models as hypotheses for experiments that we can do to try to demonstrate that the model has some validity. Utilizing that virtual model of the misfolded protein, we then do drug discovery work.
It’s similar to a conventional drug campaign. Typically, if you had an enzyme and you were trying to make an enzyme inhibitor, you would try to crystallize the enzyme so you could see where your inhibitor needed to bind. Misfolded proteins don’t crystallize. That’s the main reason why you need some other approach, and CCM is our unique approach to do this.
Did this approach lead to the development of promising compounds that you’ve used or that you’re leveraging in your partnership with Takeda?
Oh, yes. We’ve developed several classes of compounds using CCM in looking at compounds that affect beta amyloid and compounds that affect TDP that affect alpha synuclein potentially in Parkinson’s disease, and most notably for this Takeda collaboration, compounds that affect the misfolding of tau. So we’ve made compounds that we have not only demonstrated bind to this tau protein and affect its misfolding, but also have effects on the misfolding in animal models of the disease as well. This is the approach which allows for these potential drugs to slow down the production of misfolded proteins, and that should mean that there’s some disease-modifying effects. This is, I think, what really captured the imagination of the Takeda neuroscience team when we began working with them. We are going to continue that collaboration to arrive upon the chemical matter that is really going to be the compound that goes into the clinic for this program.
Lastly, I know you were recently in Boston for the BIO Conference, and that’s something that you’ve done many years before. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to be here for BIO and the value for companies like Treventis that are early stage to be there?
BIO is always an exciting and exhausting time of year, and it’s never more so than when it’s in Boston. BIO, even before COVID, is really the preeminent networking event for the pharmaceutical industry. It’s a “must-do” for emerging biotech companies to be able to make those connections face to face.
I think the thing that many people wouldn’t get from all of the banners and crowds and the big event things is how much it’s really focused on one-on-one meetings. Most of the conversations that I was having at BIO really were sitting at a table with one or two or three other people from some other company and discussing our respective companies, and just trying to have as many quality meetings as possible, face to face.
This interview was published in the Autumn 2023 Boston Office Happenings newsletter.