Young Baltimore-based neuroscience biotech company Cerecor acquired exclusive worldwide rights to develop, register, and commercialize agents previously discovered and owned by Merck that inhibit catechol-O-methyltransferase inhibitors (COMT inhibitors). As per the agreement, Cerecor will evaluate more than 2,000 molecules and select lead candidates for clinical development. Consideration will include milestone payments and royalties consistent with other preclinical licenses in neuroscience, according to the firm. Cerecor anticipates completing the technology transfer activities in 2013. 

COMT is an enzyme that breaks down dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in higher brain functions such as motivation, cognition, and emotion. Drugs that inhibit COMT have been used to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease; however, they reportedly have poor brain penetration and limited safety and tolerability. But COMT inhibition is said to have broad potential applicability in other CNS diseases, such as addictive behaviors and schizophrenia, by specifically increasing dopamine levels in areas of the brain affected by these conditions.

According to Cerecor, while the development of schizophrenia drugs to date has focused on reducing psychosis, improvement in functional outcome has been largely unattainable because current drugs do not have clinically significant impact on the “negative symptoms” and cognitive impairment of the disease. Drugs that inhibit COMT improve working memory and other measures of cognitive function in animals and in clinical studies (normal subjects and in schizophrenics). 

“Merck has developed an innovative COMT platform that has addressed the toxicity associated with existing COMT drugs,” stated Reza Mazhari, Ph.D., Cerecor’s VP of drug discovery and development. “By accessing this platform, Cerecor broadens its cognition pipeline, which also includes DAAO inhibitors. This enhances our leadership in neuropsychiatric drug development.”

The DAAO inhibitors (D-Amino Acid Oxidase inhibitors) mentioned were more than likely first developed at the Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute; just this past December, Cerecor signed an option with Johns Hopkins University for an exclusive license to develop and commercialize them. DAAO inhibitors inhibit the degradation of D-serine, an amino acid which has a central role in the normal function of the glutamate / NMDA system in the human brain. Cerecor says that growing evidence is suggesting that deficits in glutamate transmission are central to the neurobiology of schizophrenia.

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