Investment from AI Fund enables development of non-traditional drug candidates for depression

By Maggie Lynch

- Last updated on GMT

(Image: Getty/ipopba)
(Image: Getty/ipopba)

Related tags AI depression Ketamine Janssen

O2h Ventures and AI Fund invest in Small Pharma, as it works to complete studies for its lead program, a metabolite of ketamine as an oral anti-depressant.

The funding, which closed the company’s seed round at £1.1m ($1.38m), will enable further studies for Small Pharma’s SPLO26, a ‘psychedelic’ 5HT2A agonist for the treatment of depression.

Peter Rands, managing director at Small Pharma, told us that while this financing will enable further development of SPLO26, a planned Series A in early 2020 will move the candidate into the clinic with an investigational new drug (IND) application.

Small Pharma is also developing an additional preclinical candidate for the treatment of depression, SPL801, an active metabolite of ketamine.

“We are really excited by the emerging data on SPL801 and SPL026. Both compounds have been known for decades but only now do we have the tools to unlock their true potential. That they might bring relief to the hundreds of millions of underserved depression suffers worldwide is truly inspiring,”​ said Rands.

O2h is an early-stage seed enterprise investment scheme (S/EIS) fund launched by o2h ventures focused on investing in the biotechnology sector and related opportunities in artificial intelligence.

Rands told us that there is potential for the development of Small Pharma’s products to use AI; however, the company currently doesn’t have any AI capabilities.

According to o2h, it is the first S/EIS fund in the UK focused only on early-stage biotech. The fund also said that the biotech sector is a growing area in the UK’s economy and many large pharma companies rely on small biotech’s for innovations in certain disease areas, such as cancer and genomics.

Ketamine and other ‘untraditional’ anti-depressants

Development of therapies outside of the traditionally used selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) for the treatment of depression have been growing in recent years and have led to the approval of drugs like Spravato (esketamine)​ by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Janssen conducted clinical trials examining​ the use of its esketamine drug Spravato​. The active ingredient being a branch of the ketamine molecule, through intranasal administration. A Phase III trial of esketamine tested the treatment of the drug in treatment-resistant depression and a Phase II trial of the therapy in participants with an imminent risk of suicide. Spravato was approved by the FDA as a therapy for treatment resistant depression

Ketamine, an N-methyl D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist, has demonstrated potential in the treatment of depression in patients who are acutely suicidal or facing treatment-resistant depression. With this demonstrated potential, treatments like ketamine and other NDMA receptor antagonists are considered to be ‘next generation’ therapies​.

VistaGen developed the treatment AV-101​ that does not have any form of ketamine or esketamine but also inhibits NDMA activity. However, AV-101 inhibits activity through the glycine binding site but does not block it.

However, ketamine and esketamine therapies are facing resistance from some members of the industry, after researchers at Stanford University published a study​ in the American Journal of Psychiatry stating ketamine worked on the opioid system in the brain.

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