From left to right: Charles Nichols, Meghan Hibicke and Shlomi Raz

How do de­pressed rats re­spond to psy­che­delics? New da­ta of­fer in­sight in­to the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence

De­spite tricky reg­u­la­tions, re­search eval­u­at­ing the an­ti­de­pres­sant po­ten­tial of psy­che­delics in hu­mans is mush­room­ing — and the FDA has al­ready ap­proved a nasal spray con­coc­tion of the cat tran­quil­iz­er ke­t­a­mine for pa­tients whose de­pres­sion per­sists de­spite con­ven­tion­al ther­a­py.

But sci­en­tists still don’t quite ful­ly un­der­stand the an­ti­de­pres­sant im­pact of psy­che­delics on the brain — are the ef­fects pure­ly bi­o­log­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cal? A new study looks in­to the de­gree and du­ra­tion of an­ti­de­pres­sant ef­fects in­duced by these drugs — large­ly brand­ed by gov­ern­ments as il­le­gal he­do­nis­tic com­pounds with no ther­a­peu­tic po­ten­tial — in an an­i­mal mod­el.

“You re­al­ly can’t take the brain of a pa­tient and grind it up and ex­tract the genes and look at gene ex­pres­sion and see what’s changed in that brain — the best we have right now is imag­ing. But that’s still just a win­dow in­to the black box — to get in­to the black box, we ac­tu­al­ly need the brain tis­sue to be able to an­a­lyze,” said Charles Nichols, the di­rec­tor of the study and pro­fes­sor of phar­ma­col­o­gy at Louisiana State Uni­ver­si­ty (LSU).

“But to get that we have to have a mod­el where the drug works and no­body had yet been able to re­ca­pit­u­late the long term ef­fects or even an­ti­de­pres­sants ef­fects to a re­al­ly con­vinc­ing lev­el in an an­i­mal mod­el.”

Nichols, the son of long­time psy­che­del­ic re­search pro­po­nent David Nichols, has been study­ing the ef­fects of psy­che­delics in the brain for near­ly 25 years. In this study, Nichols and his team com­pared the im­pact of a one-time dose of psilo­cy­bin (the psy­choac­tive in­gre­di­ent in mag­ic mush­rooms), ly­ser­gic acid di­ethy­lamide (LSD, or acid as it is fond­ly known), and ke­t­a­mine in a rat mod­el for de­pres­sion.

There are al­ready emerg­ing da­ta sug­gest­ing the ben­e­fi­cial ef­fects of psy­che­delics in hu­mans — apart from the FDA-ap­proved ke­t­a­mine prod­uct, psilo­cy­bin is be­ing test­ed as an an­ti­de­pres­sant in a range of tri­als. Re­cent­ly, a psy­che­del­ic re­search cen­ter was opened at Johns Hop­kins.

Da­ta from Nichols’ study — the first di­rect pre­clin­i­cal com­par­i­son of the an­ti­de­pres­sant ef­fi­ca­cy of ke­t­a­mine and oth­er psy­che­delics — showed that both psilo­cy­bin and LSD sig­nif­i­cant­ly re­duces de­pres­sive-like be­hav­iors five weeks af­ter a sin­gle ad­min­is­tra­tion in rats, while on­ly the low­est dose of ke­t­a­mine eval­u­at­ed (5 mg/kg) was ef­fi­ca­cious in de­creas­ing de­pres­sive-like be­hav­iors. In ad­di­tion, the as­so­ci­at­ed an­ti­de­pres­sant-like ef­fects of ke­t­a­mine were tran­sient com­pared to psilo­cy­bin and LSD-treat­ed rats — and last­ed less than two weeks.

“Be­cause there’s so much po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion tied up in­to the re­search, it’s great…this can be a much more da­ta, ev­i­dence-based progress to­wards psy­che­del­ic ther­a­pies as op­posed to a more po­lit­i­cal grass­roots piece,” said Ro­nan Levy, ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of Toron­to-based com­pa­ny Field Trip Psy­che­delics that is open­ing up clin­ics to de­liv­er psy­che­del­ic-based psy­chother­a­py.

A WIN­DOW TO NEW COP­ING STRATE­GIES

In or­der to see how the “de­pressed’ rats re­act­ed to the psy­che­del­ic com­pounds, the an­i­mals were first put through what is com­mon­ly known as a ‘forced swim test’ to mea­sure if they were de­pressed.

“The short sto­ry is you throw them in a buck­et of wa­ter,” said Meghan Hi­bicke, the study’s lead au­thor and post­doc­tor­al re­searcher at LSU Health Sci­ences Cen­ter, Phar­ma­col­o­gy and Ex­per­i­men­tal Ther­a­peu­tics.

“You see how much they swim ver­sus how much they float. And then you can mea­sure that be­hav­ior — so that’s the plan­ning and the pas­sive cop­ing strat­e­gy that can be kind of com­pa­ra­ble to a de­pressed per­son in bed.”

De­pressed peo­ple find it dif­fi­cult to get up and brush their teeth — dai­ly func­tion­ing is re­al­ly hard and ac­tive, prob­lem-solv­ing is ar­du­ous, she said.

“So ba­si­cal­ly, what makes hu­mans feel bad, makes a rat float, and what makes a hu­man feel bet­ter, makes a rat swim … they are just dif­fer­ent mea­sures of pas­sive ver­sus ac­tive cop­ing strate­gies — like get­ting shocked and freez­ing when you’re hu­man would be a pas­sive cop­ing strat­e­gy ver­sus run­ning around and try­ing to get away.”

Con­verse­ly, if you give rats an­ti­de­pres­sant med­ica­tions that have been shown to be ef­fec­tive in hu­mans, the same rats will start to be­have more nor­mal­ly. They’ll start swim­ming in the wa­ter and ex­hib­it food-seek­ing be­hav­iors, Nichols added.

While con­duct­ing the study, Nichols and Hi­bicke were cau­tious in choos­ing the dos­es of the tri­fec­ta of psy­che­del­ic com­pounds, re­ly­ing on lit­er­a­ture re­views and con­sul­ta­tions with David Nichols to hone in on op­ti­mal dos­es. “If you use too much, the rat is go­ing to be ba­si­cal­ly su­per-stoned and it’s not go­ing to be able to per­form. And if you don’t use enough, you might not hit a ther­a­peu­tic lev­el,” Nichols said.

The study find­ings were sig­nif­i­cant on two lev­els. The re­searchers first ac­com­plished their pri­ma­ry goal of gen­er­at­ing a ro­dent ex­per­i­men­tal sys­tem that could be used to study the mol­e­c­u­lar, cel­lu­lar ef­fects with psilo­cy­bin as an an­ti­de­pres­sant.

“So we now have an an­i­mal mod­el, where psilo­cy­bin has long-last­ing ef­fects af­ter a sin­gle dose and we can go and take the (rat) brains out and be­gin to ask ques­tions on how is it (the drug) chang­ing the brain to do this,” Nichols said.

The sec­ond goal was broad­er — gath­er­ing in­sight in­to whether the ther­a­peu­tic ben­e­fit is pure­ly psy­cho­log­i­cal or bi­o­log­i­cal.

“What our re­sults have shown is that it’s re­al­ly kind of nei­ther — that at its core the an­ti­de­pres­sant ef­fects are bi­o­log­i­cal be­cause the rat doesn’t re­al­ly have the ex­is­ten­tial angst — the same rea­sons for de­pres­sion that a hu­man would have. But what we did find was that we could shape the an­ti­de­pres­sant ef­fect by the en­vi­ron­ment that the rat was placed in af­ter the treat­ment,” Nichols said.

What the rats en­coun­tered dur­ing their first week af­ter their psy­che­del­ic ex­pe­ri­ence ei­ther re­in­forces a cop­ing strat­e­gy that was al­ready there, or it taught them a new cop­ing strat­e­gy.

“So it seems like psilo­cy­bin at least is open­ing this kind of win­dow where a new cop­ing strat­e­gy is learn­able which would be re­al­ly re­al­ly help­ful for peo­ple who are suf­fer­ing from chron­ic life prob­lems like de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety and stress and drug ad­dic­tion or gam­bling ad­dic­tion — where there’s a pe­ri­od of time in which, af­ter their psy­che­del­ic ex­pe­ri­ence, they can learn a new way to be­have un­der old cir­cum­stances or un­der chal­leng­ing cir­cum­stances,” Hi­bicke said.

IM­PLI­CA­TIONS FOR IN­DUS­TRY 

What does this mean for the ex­plo­sion of com­pa­nies and re­searchers look­ing in­to the ther­a­peu­tic po­ten­tial of dif­fer­ent psy­che­del­ic com­pounds for a range of con­di­tions?

“Be­ing able to com­bine our dig­i­tal health ca­pa­bil­i­ties with the new in­sights in­to the bi­o­log­i­cal mech­a­nisms, giv­ing rise to an­ti­de­pres­sant-like ef­fects will en­hance our abil­i­ty to iden­ti­fy why some pa­tients may re­spond bet­ter to psilo­cy­bin or LSD ver­sus ke­t­a­mine…fur­ther jus­ti­fy­ing re­im­burse­ment for care,” said Shlo­mi Raz, the chief of Eleu­sis Ben­e­fit Cor­po­ra­tion, which spon­sored Nichols’ study.

“When you can make pre­dic­tions that have a high de­gree of ac­cu­ra­cy, the whole per­spec­tive on the use of these oth­er­wise cost­ly ther­a­pies will be­gin to change.”

For ATAI Life Sci­ences — an um­brel­la en­ti­ty that is be­hind com­pa­nies such as Com­pass Path­ways (which cur­rent­ly has a mid-stage treat­ment-re­sis­tant de­pres­sion study test­ing a psilo­cy­bin com­pound) and Per­cep­tion Neu­ro­science (which took its ke­t­a­mine de­riv­a­tive in­to clin­i­cal tri­als last year) — the study adds more ro­bust ev­i­dence sup­port­ing the ther­a­peu­tic use of psy­che­delics.

Pre­vi­ous­ly, the an­i­mal mod­els were large­ly in mice, Srini­vas Rao, ATAI’s chief sci­en­tif­ic of­fi­cer not­ed. “With rats, you’re just go­ing up the evo­lu­tion­ary lad­der a lit­tle bit,” he said. “Rats have much more com­plex be­hav­ior than mice — it’s just more brain there.”

Ven­ture Cap­i­tal as a Strate­gic Part­ner: Fu­el­ing In­no­va­tion be­yond Fi­nance

The average level of investment required for a biotech start-up to succeed is increasing every year, elevating the pressure even further on venture capital to make smart financial investments. Financial investment alone, however, does not always guarantee that exciting innovations can be transformed into real businesses that make a meaningful difference to patients.

Beyond just capital

At Astellas Venture Management (AVM) – a wholly-owned venture capital organization within Astellas, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area – capital is just one of the ingredients we offer to add value to our biotechnology investments and partnerships. We generally take a strategic investor approach for companies in our invested portfolio, providing access to expertise, technology and/or resources in addition to the injection of finance. An equity investment from AVM can include access to Astellas’ research and development (R&D) capabilities and expertise, and a global network of partner academic institutions and biotechnology companies, to help advance and accelerate the start-up’s innovation.

UP­DAT­ED: Ver­tex joins Mer­ck, Pfiz­er — re­vamp­ing multi­bil­lion-dol­lar tri­al strat­e­gy as biotech R&D crum­bles

You can add Pfizer, Merck and — as we found out Friday morning — Vertex to the growing list of pharma giants hitting the pause button on a range of clinical trials. But not everyone in R&D is getting a red light.

Vertex says that it’s doing its best to keep working its pipeline strategy, coming up with a plan “to enable virtual clinic visits and home delivery of study drug to ensure study continuity and medical monitoring, and to facilitate study procedures.”

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 76,800+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Covid-19 roundup: In­ter­cept, blue­bird and a grow­ing list of biotechs feel the pain as pan­dem­ic man­gles FDA, R&D sched­ules

Around 100 staffers at Boston area hospitals have now tested positive for Covid-19, spotlighting the growing risk that the pandemic will sideline many of the most essential workers in healthcare as caseloads peak in the US and around the globe. With more than 3,400 deaths, Spain has become the latest country to surpass the official death count attributed to the new coronavirus in China, where the outbreak originated. As of Thursday morning, confirmed global cases had crossed 470,000 and the death count eclipsed 21,000.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 76,800+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Af­ter crit­ics lam­bast­ed Gilead for grab­bing the FDA's spe­cial rare drug sta­tus on remde­sivir, they're giv­ing it back

Two days after Gilead won orphan drug status for remdesivir as a potential treatment for Covid-19, they’re handing it back.

The company was slammed from several sides after Gilead reported that the FDA had come through with the special status, which comes with 7 years of market exclusivity, the waiver of FDA fees and some tax credits as well. Typically, everyone who can get orphan status lands it without much of a fuss, but Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Public Citizen and other consumer groups were outraged.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 76,800+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Mod­er­na CEO Stéphane Ban­cel out­lines a short path for emer­gency use of a coro­n­avirus vac­cine

NIAID director Anthony Fauci has left no doubts that it takes 12 to 18 months to get a new vaccine tested and in commercial use, in the best of circumstances. But in times of a global emergency — like these — maybe there’s another, faster route to follow.

In an SEC filing on Tuesday, Moderna $MRNA staked out a record-setting pathway to getting their mRNA vaccine into the frontline of the healthcare response as early as this fall. The SEC filing notes that CEO Stéphane Bancel told Goldman Sachs that an emergency use approval could allow the vaccine to go to healthcare workers and certain individuals in a matter of months — presumably provided the NIH sees the safety and efficacy data they would need from the Phase I.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 76,800+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Caught in a Covid-19 mael­strom, Eli Lil­ly locks down clin­i­cal tri­als as multi­bil­lion-dol­lar R&D ops de­rail

The Covid-19 pandemic has derailed Eli Lilly’s $6 billion R&D operations.

The pharma giant reported Monday morning that it has decided to hit the brakes on most new study starts and pause enrollment for most ongoing studies. Lilly adds that it is continuing dosing for ongoing studies, “but with study-by-study consideration.”

The pandemic has severely disrupted healthcare systems around the globe, says Lilly, making it difficult or impossible to conduct studies at many research sites. And there’s no timeline for when it expects to get back on track.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 76,800+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

As share buy­backs come un­der scruti­ny, what's in store for the bio­phar­ma in­dus­try?

Stock buybacks are not to be permitted for companies that will be bailed out in the coronavirus stimulus package, Congressional leaders have signaled. To what degree the biopharma industry has relied on buybacks for earnings growth in recent years, and if the trend continues, are the big questions as scrutiny into the practice heightens and balance sheets weaken with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on global economies.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 76,800+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

A Sin­ga­pore VC rais­es $200M for a new round, but will Covid-19 pre­vent it from rais­ing the rest?

A top Singaporean biotech venture fund is nearly halfway toward its largest ever fund, but in a sign of what could be in store for VCs amid a global economic freeze, said they could face headwinds raising the other half.

Vickers Venture Partners has secured $200 million out of a targeted $500 million for its 6th fund, first announced in early 2018. They’ve given themselves 13 months to complete the financing, Vickers founder Finian Tan told Deal Street Asia, but the financial frost settling amid the Covid-19 pandemic could slow efforts.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 76,800+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Strug­gling Unum ex­ecs are ready to con­sid­er a sale, merg­er or any deal that comes its way

Unum $UMRX is working its way through a survival plan of sorts.

After getting hit with a trio of FDA holds in its brief public history and triggering its second pivot to a new lead drug program while laying off 60% of the staff, the troubled penny stock biotech Unum Therapeutics has hatched new plans to secure financial backing while lining up a go-forward strategy for the company.

First, Lincoln Park Capital Fund has agreed to buy up to $25 million of the long-suffering stock, as Unum directs. And the executive team — led by CEO Chuck Wilson — has put everything on the table for consideration: a sale, acquisition, merger, licensing deal, you name it. The ACTR707 program, meanwhile, is being formally wrapped up — their second failed lead program.