Chief Scientific Officer, BrainCells, Inc.
If Carrolee Barlow has her way, the next new class of antidepressants will be branded BCI for BrainCells, Inc., the hot young San Diego biopharma riding the wave of neurogenesis. (See Luca Santarelli.)
Barlow, 45, spearheads BCI's drug discovery, using the neural-stem-cell platform technology she invented with BCI cofounder Fred "Rusty" Gage. Barlow first teamed up with Gage in 1998 at the Salk Institute. "Rusty's the one who's completely famous in neuroscience," she says modestly. In fact, Gage is a likely Nobel shoe-in for his codiscovery in the late '90s that the adult human brain can regenerate itself. But it's Barlow's transgenomics genius that has helped unlock that revolutionary insight's therapeutic power by creating the requisite research models.Prior to BCI, Barlow spent two years at Merck, leading the drug giant's initiative to establish a neurodegenerative franchise—from labwork to licensing. "I had fantastic people on my team, and I learned an enormous amount about how to coordinate a major effort," she recalls. That was perfect preparation for her job at BCI, where she was Gage's first hire in 2004 and charged with finding and minding not only the neuron-producing stem cells but a new team of world-class PhDs and MDs.
Not a problem. "I've been very lucky in my career to be around a lot of people who had a hunger in their belly to do something greater and more innovative," Barlow says. Her own hunger for drug discovery derives partly from her residency in internal medicine at New York Hospital before AIDS was largely treatable. Now, after almost five years of screening over 1,000 compounds at BCI, she and her team already have three drugs in clinical trials, including a lead candidate in Phase II for depression.
"None of the drugs have overlapping mechanisms—they're all unique," she says. "But what they all do is promote neurogenesis." The Phase II antidepressant works without touching serontonin levels, indicating that it may be free of Prozac-type side effects, including the big-time loss of libido.
Meantime, studies increasingly support the hope that drugs with neurogenic benefits could lead to profound advances in treating all manner of CNS conditions—a category with global sales in the $100 billion range, as BCI's Website is quick to crow about.
Money isn't the prime mover, however. "We may not succeed in the clinic, though I believe we will," she says. "But being willing to accept that even if our lead compound doesn't work, our success is in answering this incredibly important question correctly, that's why we're willing to do it."