Developing a backup therapy for treating the seizures that affect victims of nerve agents could be a promising niche for a company whose name includes perhaps the most notorious such weapon, spelled backward.

Share story

In a better world — one without headlines about nerve agents killing civilians in Syria and nearly killing two ex-Russians in England — the biopharmaceutical startup Proniras might need a better business plan.

But this is not that world. So developing a backup therapy for treating the seizures suffered by victims of nerve agents could be a promising niche for a Seattle company whose name includes perhaps the most notorious such weapon, spelled backward.

The name is “not a coincidence at all,” said co-founder Christopher Toombs. “We’re promoting the reversal of sarin” and other nerve agents, added David Schubert, the company’s chief operating officer and also chief operating partner at Accelerator Life Science Partners, one of Proniras’s backers.

Proniras has just inked a contract with a federal agency that funds and procures medical countermeasures for national security threats ranging from pandemic influenza to chemical and biological weapons. The funding starts with a modest $3 million for nine months, but if Proniras meets a succession of milestones the pact could bring up to $89.5 million over five years.

This is probably a good spot to point out that the drug’s effectiveness against nerve agents will not be tested on humans, and that animal testing with actual nerve agents will be conducted in a specialized contract lab — not anywhere near Seattle.

“There are only a handful of laboratories in the country that even have the approval from the government to handle these agents,” said Schubert.

Proniras says the safety profile of the drug, called tezampanel, has been demonstrated in 400-patient clinical trials for treating acute migraines. Eli Lilly, which first developed it, abandoned that application but now is one of Proniras’s backers — along with ARCH Venture Partners, Alexandria Venture Investments, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, and WRF Capital, among others.

Nerve agents, despite their fearsome reputation, kill only a portion of the people they affect — hence the survival of the two ex-Russians poisoned, presumably by their former countrymen, in Salisbury England. Similarly, the 1995 sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway by Japanese cult group Aum Shinrikyo killed 13 but injured several thousand more.

Exposure that isn’t immediately fatal can be pretty severe, nonetheless. As the agency funding Proniras’s work, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), puts it: “Uncontrollable seizures are a devastating result of exposure to nerve agents and can be deadly or lead to permanent brain damage.”

Initial treatment with an injectable form of the drug best known as Valium may help, but often that becomes ineffective. Proniras’s founders believe their drug will provide a better response; initial studies already show it “effectively arrests seizures in rodents” exposed to a nerve agent related to sarin, called soman.

Schubert said the company begins several steps ahead of the typical pharma startup that’s working on a theoretical application of a potential new drug. In its previous incarnation, “This drug’s been manufactured at scale, delivered to hundreds of human beings,” he said.

The company’s emergence may seem like a quick reaction to the recent nerve agent episodes, but Schubert said it has been in discussions with BARDA and others for 18 months.

Proniras, housed with Accelerator Life Science Partners on Eastlake Avenue East in Seattle, will operate initially with a small staff of just three, said Toombs, but “will use a cadre of very well-experienced consultants both locally and nationally.”