GBR Connect Series – Interview with Emer Leahy, PsychoGenics
“The main trait we are looking for in partners is access to interesting chemical libraries where, combining good chemistry with our platforms, we can identify novel treatments for neuropsychiatric disorders.”
Can you give an overview of how business has evolved for PsychoGenics over the past year?
There are two sides to PsychoGenics; a preclinical CNS focused CRO and drug discovery. On the CRO side, PsychoGenics experienced significant growth with our service business growing about 30%. This can largely be attributed to the significant amount of investment currently going into CNS research. More companies are being formed and we are increasingly seeing small, well-funded, venture backed companies reaching out to us. We have continued to expand the company’s service offerings and added many people to our team (currently 150). We have also increased our research facility footprint.
On the drug discovery side, PsychoGenics has pioneered the use of AI in phenotypic drug discovery with our SmartCube and other in vivo platforms. We are seeing renewed interest from companies looking to access in our phenotypic platforms. We have also put significant effort into internal drug discovery where we utilize our platforms in psychiatric drug discovery. We have built up a substantial library of chemically diverse compounds (more than 7,000) that have been tested in SmartCube and have shown interesting activity for CNS indications. We have initiated several drug discovery programs and expect to take one or two of these into IND-enabling study studies in 2022.
Do you believe the need for CNS research and drug discovery has been exacerbated due to the pandemic?
We definitely saw an increase in the number of people suffering from depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, and anorexia in teens, amongst others. This has been particularly evident in the vulnerable adolescent population which showed an approximate 30% increase in the prevalence of mental illness compared to prior years. Social isolation, fear and limited access to treatment as a result of the pandemic have triggered a mental health crisis. Other populations which are also vulnerable to mental illness are the homeless and incarcerated who have limited access to treatment.
How would you describe the investment climate in the life sciences sector, particularly for CNS research and development?
In 2020 and 2021, we saw a significant increase in investor interest and funding in CNS research. Many new well-funded companies emerged. Many big pharma renewed their interest in CNS research over the past few years. The government is also investing in certain areas of CNS research such as the NIH HEAL Initiative addressing the opioid crisis. PsychoGenics is part of the HEAL initiative through the Preclinical Screening Platform for Pain (PSPP), a government-program initiated in late 2019 to help identify non-opioid analgesic drugs.
Can you elaborate on PsychoGenics’ partnerships and collaborations within the sector?
We have partnered with many companies to help identify novel and safe treatments for psychiatric conditions. Our partnership with Sunovion has been particularly productive with four compounds advancing to clinical trials. Ulotaront, previously known as SEP-363856, is the most advanced and is in multiple phase 3 trials for schizophrenia. Ulotaront is a new mechanism of action and results from phase 2 suggest it has effects on negative symptoms (apathy and social withdrawal) with placebo like side effects. We have also partnered with Roche, Blue Oak and Karuna Therapeutics to identify potential novel drug candidates for the treatment of severe neuropsychiatric disorders. The main trait we are looking for in partners is access to interesting chemical libraries where combining good chemistry with our platforms can identify novel treatments for neuropsychiatric disorders.
In terms of AI, how has PsychoGenics been able to navigate processing big data into actionable tasks?
AI has become a buzzword in the industry, but it is important to ensure that you are working with an AI based platform that has been validated. PsychoGenics started employing AI in biology in 2002 as a way to industrialize phenotypic drug discovery. We have since delivered many compounds to the clinic where, in the case of Ulotaront, our preclinical findings were validated clinically.
What is PsychoGenics’ vision and objectives for the next few years?
Our main objective is to advance several partnered and internal compounds to clinical trials so patients can ultimately access much needed improved treatments. To do this we will continue to grow the company and bring in new capabilities. Although we are experiencing a very tight and extremely competitive labor market, we aim to expand our team with the best people to move our company forward. Currently we have 20 positions to fill.