Co-founded by researchers Joseph Glorioso, from the University of Pittsburgh’s microbiology and molecular genetics department; and Dr. Nicholas Boulis, the founder of Emory’s Gene and Cell Therapy for Neurorestoration Laboratory; Coda uses gene therapies to treat neurological diseases starting with severe pain and epilepsy.
America is a country in pain. There are over 19 million Americans who live with chronic neuropathic pain, according to Coda’s own statistics. And over the past twenty years the doctors treating those Americans and the drug companies developing therapies for them have managed to turn their treatment into a new epidemic — opioid addiction.
In 2017, 47,600 Americans died from opioid-involved overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Of those deaths, about 60% involved synthetic opioids.
“The incentives were there for people to prescribe more and more, particularly when they had already been convinced it was the right thing to do — the compassionate thing to do,” Keith Humphreys, a psychiatrist at Stanford University and a former White House drug-policy adviser, told the journal Nature.
As the pain epidemic and attendant opioid crisis began to skyrocket several companies have been racing to find alternatives to the drug treatments that were now killing Americans by the thousands. Other approaches like electrical nerve stimulation can carry risks, and invasive surgeries are an unappealing last resort, according to Coda’s chief executive.
Coda’s experimental treatment is based on a science called chemogenetics, which uses a harmless virus to create new receptors in the sensory neurons that provide signals to the brain about physical stimuli. Those receptors can be unlocked by small molecule drugs, which would instruct the sensory neurons to stop firing, thereby cutting off the signals of pain to the brain.
The idea behind chemogenetics is to engineer a receptor that when you put it in with a… gene therapy… it does nothing. We’ve engineered it so that it is no longer responsive,” says Michael Narachi, the president and chief executive officer at Coda. “Most of these receptors are naturally opened or closed by acetylcholine… We’ve engineered these receptors so that they’re no longer responsive to acetylcholine, but they are responsive to a man-made drug.”
The company then draws from a portfolio of receptor small-molecule drug pairs that were developed and tested for their pharmacological and toxicological effects, but discarded because of a lack of efficacy, to create new therapies with receptors tailored to respond to those drugs.
“What we’ve done is flipped the whole paradigm on its head. We’re making the lock that can work with these keys,” says Narachi.
So far, the company has raised $ 34 million as investors including Versant Ventures, MPM Capital and Astellas Venture Management have doubled down on their initial $ 19 million commitment to the new drug developer.
“Since coming out of stealth mode last September, the CODA team has made tremendous progress in developing its gene therapy program that is tunable, durable and highly selective, which allows for better efficacy and safety with fewer off-target effects,” said Tom Woiwode, Ph.D., managing director at Versant Ventures and CODA Chairman, in a statement. “CODA’s platform holds great promise to significantly transform how we treat challenging conditions and disorders for which new therapeutic options are greatly needed.”
Pain isn’t the only condition that Coda hopes to treat. The company is also working on therapies that can reduce the severity of epilepsy for the nearly 3.4 million people in the U.S. who have the condition. While the company can’t treat all kinds of epilepsy, Coda says that it could address focal epilepsy, which represents 60% of all manifestations of the condition, and is linked to a specific region of the brain.
By engineering neurotransmitter receptors that are activated by medicines that can be taken orally, Coda thinks it can control the activity of neurons responsible for both chronic pain and focal epilepsy.
The next step for the company — and part of the use of proceeds from its new $ 15 million cash infusion — will . be to proceed with early animal trials. These clinical trials will be followed by human trials.
“This is a research platform,” says Narachi. “We have this portfolio of engineered receptors and we’re testing them in cells. The next step is to go into human clinical trials.”
Facebook is today launching a partner program for its Express Wi-Fi initiative, which helps bring higher-speed connections to developing markets, including India, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania. The program itself involves having local business owners install Wi-Fi hotspots, where internet service is provided by local ISPs, mobile network operators, and others that Facebook has partnered with. Now, Facebook is launching a new partner program that will allow access point manufacturers to build devices compatible with Express Wi-Fi.
Facebook first began testing Express Wi-Fi three years ago, and has since expanded it to the five above countries and 10 partners. The idea behind the project is to create an entrepreneurial grassroots base for the its Wi-Fi service – that is, the operators and ISPs would be working with local entrepreneurs who want to resell internet access in their own communities. The partners set the prices, but Facebook provides the software.
The company has tried to address the needs of developing markets before, via its zero-rating program Free Basics. But this program was criticized over net neutrality concerns, as it only provided access to specific websites – like Facebook, of course – to the developing markets. India eventually banned that program in 2016, as a result.
Express Wi-Fi, on the other hand, offers full, unrestricted access to the web, not a selection of pre-approved sites and services. It’s one of Facebook’s many connectivity initiatives today, along with others like OpenCellular, rural access programs, drones, and other infrastructure projects.
The new partner program for Express Wi-Fi, announced today, was built to address specific issues Facebook and its partners faced in the field, the company now explains. It says it has been working with the manufacturers to build new access points that better detect registration pages and more accurately count the amount of Wi-Fi data consumed.
This will allow the Wi-Fi service providers to sell prepaid access as well as different traffic classes – like offering some services or content for free, while charging for others. Presumably, this would be another avenue of making Facebook free to developing markets down the road.
Facebook says having hardware manufacturers on board will help its operator partners more easily set up and manage their Express Wi-Fi hotspots.
Weak and expensive connectivity is a big barrier to Facebook adoption in developing markets, especially as user growth in developed regions is stalling – or, even decreasing at times. In July, Facebook reported no user growth in the U.S. and Canada, and a loss of European users it attribute to GDPR requirements. Developing regions, however, are still coming online and could bring Facebook a whole host of new users, if people can get connected.
A half-dozen years after launching Wikipedia Zero, The Wikimedia Foundation is sunsetting the program. Announced in 2012, it was the result of partnerships with mobile carriers, designed to waive the cost of accessing the free encyclopedia in developing countries, where data fees presented a barrier to accessing the site’s seemingly bottomless well of information. Read More