MJFF grants $150K to develop a PET tracer for brain inflammation

Ventus will use award to ID, advance NLRP3 tracer for Parkinson's

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by Steve Bryson, PhD |

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The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) has awarded a $150,000 grant to a biopharmaceutical company seeking to develop a positron emission tomography (PET) tracer for NLRP3, a therapeutic target tied to brain inflammation in Parkinson’s disease.

With the funding, Ventus Therapeutics hopes to identify and develop a tracer from its portfolio of NLRP3-blocking therapeutic candidates, all designed to ease inflammation.

A PET tracer specific to NLRP3 will reveal details of the protein’s role in nerve-related inflammation, which contributes to nerve cell loss in Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

“Overwhelming evidence links neuroinflammation and NLRP3 activation to Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions, and this is reflected in the launch of the Novel PET Tracer Development Program by MJFF,” Mike Crackower, PhD, chief scientific officer at Ventus, said in a company press release.

PET imaging uses radioactive molecules, or tracers, to visualize tissues and organs within the body. This can be applied to diagnose disease, monitor progression, or measure the effects of medications.

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PET imaging techniques

Launched in 2022, the MJFF’s Novel PET Tracer Development Program supports work that develops PET imaging techniques using radiotracers of targets related to Parkinson’s disease. Targets include disease-related proteins, nerve cell receptors, energy-producing mitochondria, or inflammatory processes.

Recent studies suggest that inflammation may drive Parkinson’s in parallel to other disease processes. Together, they contribute to the loss of dopamine-producing nerve cells, particularly in the substantia nigra, a brain region involved in voluntary movement control.

NLRP3 is a protein that patrols the inside of cells to detect infectious agents such as viruses. When a threat is detected, NLRP3 triggers the formation of the inflammasome, a multiprotein complex that promotes the release of proinflammatory signaling molecules and cell death.

Abnormal activation of the NLRP3 inflammasome is thought to play a key role in biological processes underlying several neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.

We now have the potential to develop the first ever brain-penetrant NLRP3 PET tracer, and we are grateful for the support of MJFF.

With its proprietary computational chemistry platform, Ventus is developing several therapeutic candidates designed to access the brain and inhibit, or block, the activity of NLRP3. The goal is to prevent inflammasome formation, ease inflammation, and slow nerve cell loss.

“NLRP3 is one of our initial targets of focus, and as part of our differentiated portfolio, we have developed structurally distinct, potent, and selective brain-penetrant NLRP3 inhibitors,” Crackower said.

The MJFF grant will fund the further development of these NLRP3 inhibitors to identify those that may serve as an NLRP3 PET tracer to track disease and treatment.

“We now have the potential to develop the first ever brain-penetrant NLRP3 PET tracer, and we are grateful for the support of MJFF,” Crackower said.

Ventus, based in the U.S. and Canada, last year received $70 million in funding in an agreement with Novo Nordisk. In exchange, Novo Nordisk received exclusive worldwide rights to develop and commercialize one of Ventus’ lead anti-NLRP3 candidates. Novo Nordisk will focus on various conditions affecting the kidneys, liver, heart, and metabolism.