A new psychedelics player emerges to treat mental health disorders — minus the hallucinogenic effects
One line in an academic paper changed everything for David Olson.
It was 2018 when Olson’s lab at the University of California, Davis published a paper demonstrating psychedelics’ ability to promote neuroplasticity. Psychedelics research has slowly emerged from the shadows in the last couple decades, with the FDA approving the first psychedelic drug, esketamine, to treat depression in 2019. A handful of companies are now testing the effects of other compounds like psilocybin — the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms — on a suite of mental health disorders.
In the paper, Olson wrote “one little line” about his lab’s work on novel analogs of psychedelics that could have similar therapeutic benefits, but were non-hallucinogenic.
“One of our co-founders, Nick Haft at OMX Ventures, he read that line and he contacted me right away,” Olson said. “It was a time when I was looking for a business partner, I was looking for someone to bring this company together.”
In 2019, they launched Delix Therapeutics, tapping Shire neuroscience vet Mark Rus to guide the Boston-based biotech into the clinic. And on Monday, they unveiled a $70 million Series A round led by ARTIS Ventures, RA Capital Management and OMX.
“It’s a group that’s all really excited by the new hope that psychedelic and psychoplastogen efficacy and early data and emerging data has promised,” Rus, CEO, told Endpoints News.
Olson’s lab coined the term “psychoplastogen” to describe small molecules that produce rapid and long-lasting psychedelic- and ketamine-like effects on neuronal structure. Their non-hallucinogenic psychoplastogens produced “sustained therapeutic effects” in preclinical models, according to Delix, and their first two candidates are slated to enter the clinic in 2022.
David Olson in his lab (UC-Davis), courtesy of Delix
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While Rus hasn’t revealed which indications Delix is targeting first, he said the company is looking to go after a large swath of mental health disorders, all of which have one thing in common: something called cortical atrophy.
If you think of neurons as trees in a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, Rus explained, dendrites would be the branches and synapses would be the leaves. The withering of those branches, in many cases, leads to less connectivity and effective communication with other parts of the brain that influence things like motivation or reward.
“That’s why in many cases in neuropsychiatric conditions, you get depression or you’ll get anxiety, you get some cognitive challenges, and you get a mix, depending on the patient,” he said. “A lot of neurodegenerative conditions have cortical atrophy at their heart as well, and that’s something that Delix’s platform over time will seek to pursue.”
Delix’s most advanced compounds are non-hallucinogenic analogs of first-generation psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD, DMT, and MDMA. By curbing hallucinogenic effect, Delix is hoping to avoid some of the safety liabilities of the earlier generation, as well as the need for in-clinic administration.
“While I definitely think that patients will be helped by these first-generation hallucinogenic medicines, I think that we can help many, many more patients with the non-hallucinogenic psychoplastogens, and so that’s really, I think, what differentiates us,” Olson said.
Of course, the company will have some catching up to do. ATAI Life Sciences is already racing through the clinic with psilocybin- and R-ketamine-based programs. And Jonathan Sporn, the Harvard scientist behind a couple of ATAI’s programs, launched his own company back in May to create analogs of some of the most common psychedelic drugs.
When asked if an IPO is in the future, Rus responded: “Our focus is on the data right now, but we’ll certainly examine all options like any company would down the road.”