Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008 | In a laboratory at the La Jolla-based Salk Institute nearly 10 years ago, researcher Rusty Gage established that new brain cells can be grown in the human brain, a finding that reversed accepted dogma and left researchers hoping to eventually transform the way mood disorders are treated.
The process, known as neurogenesis, spurs stem cells in the adult brain to produce a fresh supply of brain cells; such growth usually declines in early adulthood.
Then, in 2003, a colleague had another breakthrough: Rene Hen, a Columbia University neuroscientist, posited that it was this process — not pharmaceutical drugs — that seemed to be improving the mood of mice in early research on depression.
They were so encouraged by the findings that later that year, Gage and Hen founded BrainCells Inc. The small San Diego firm today has one brain cell-boosting drug in mid-stage human clinical trial for depression and anxiety and it hopes to eventually ease many of the serious side affects that come with traditional antidepressants such as Prozac and Zoloft.
And while many questions remain about the link between mood disorders and neurogenesis, BrainCells has managed to secure an impressive $77 million from investors at a time when venture capital is scarce. The company’s goal is to identify and retool existing drugs — some of which have floundered in their original purposes — into new drugs that can treat mood disorders.
“If your parents ever told you that you were wasting brain cells you could never get back, they were wrong,” said Carrolee Barlow, a neuroscientist who left Merck to become the fledgling company’s chief scientific officer. “You can get some of them back.”