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Longevity Briefs: A Better Approach To Psychiatric Drugs

Posted on 7 October 2021

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Longevity briefs provides a short summary of novel research in biology, medicine, or biotechnology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

Why is this research important: What shortens life expectancy more than smoking? One answer could be poor mental health: serious mental illness shortens life expectancy by 10-20 years. Yet compared to how we design pharmaceuticals for other deadly diseases, our approach in the case of mental disorders appears crude and haphazard. That’s partly because the central nervous system is far more complicated than other organ systems, and our lack of understanding of the causes of mental disorders makes it hard to precision-engineer treatments the way we do for other conditions. What’s more, sufferers of a given mental disorder are not a uniform group and don’t all respond to drugs in the same way. About a third of patients with depression do not respond to the first selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor given to them.

What did the researchers do: A biotech company called Neumora, in partnership with biopharmaceutical company Amgen, is seeking ways to apply precision engineering to CNS drugs, using a computer science approach to improve the way we treat diseases like depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s. Neumora will be using screening technology that selects patients based on their answers to questions that are already used for diagnosis. Patients’ answers form a “biomarker” to help identify which patients will benefit from a drug. It is hoped that computer algorithms can be trained to match psychiatric patients to medicines in the same way that patterns of gene expression in cancer cells can help find the right drugs for a cancer patient.

Another aim of the company is to develop therapies that target specific genes such as GRIN2A and GRIN2b, which encode protein subunits of the NMDA receptor, the target of drugs such as the anaesthetic ketamine. Research suggests these genes may play a key role in schizophrenia and depression.

Key takeaway(s) from this research: Researchers are looking for ways to more efficiently develop and evaluate new drugs for psychiatric disorders. In an ideal world, the development of drugs for the central nervous system should resemble drug development in other areas like cancer and rare genetic diseases, where medicines can be designed based on an understanding of genetics and administered specifically to those patients most likely to benefit.

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