Resting on her hip is the beeper Cogent Neuroscience’s Laura Shaughnessy wears to alert her whenever the North Carolina Eye Bank has donor retinal tissue available.
Through Cogent’s sponsorship of a program on a local National Public Radio show, the eye bank learned that its retinal tissue could do more than give sight: It could aid the development of therapies for neurological disorders like stroke and Parkinson’s disease.
Since retinal tissue is similar genetically to brain tissue, Shaughnessy and her colleagues can preserve it and transform it into the tissue of a stroke victim by depriving it of oxygen and nutrients and then use genomics to analyze the results.
They inject random DNA sequences into the tissue, looking for a sequence that stops the cascade of cell death that marks so many neurological diseases. Only when a neuroprotective gene is identified do Cogent scientists go through the process of sequencing the gene.
“We’re a backwards genomics company,” says cofounder and CEO Max Wallace. “We sequence the DNA after we figure out if it has an effect in the brain.”
The research hinges on the ability to keep tissue alive for the days it typically takes a stroke victim’s cells to die off, instead of the several hours most cells can stay active. The proprietary process for maintaining the tissue was developed by two Duke University professors, Don Lo and Lawrence Katz, who then helped start Durham, NC-based Cogent.
Since Cogent started in 1998, 150 sequences have been identified that could be useful in finding a treatment for neurological disease. The company has applied for 31 patents and received 10. It’s also screening compounds and has found 50 that appear to affect stroke progression.
Last December, the company received an infusion of money from Irish pharma Elan to create Huntington’s disease in live brain tissue and look for genes that affect the lethal brain disease. Elan sells the diagnostic kit that confirms whether someone is carrying the Huntington’s gene. The partnership is for three years, but Wallace is searching for more investment dollars this fall to help the company get through 2002.
— Catherine Liden Traugot