August 28, 2021
Durham Startup Founded by Duke Scientists Thinks it has a Way to Improve Antidepressants
For nearly a third of patients, the most common form of antidepressants on the market don’t seem to work well. But a biotech startup founded by Duke University scientists believes it might have found an approach to make those drugs more successful by giving them a helping hand.
Evecxia Therapeutics, founded by Marc Caron and Jacob Jacobsen, is studying in clinical trials a new way to deliver the compound 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) to patients.
When 5-HTP enters the body it is converted into serotonin, a chemical in the brain that can affect mood.
And the company is steadily raising money to fund those studies, recently bringing in $8.6 million from investors, with hopes of raising $12 million more in the coming months.
If you were able to use the compound to create a surge of serotonin, 5-HTP could conceivably assist some commonly used antidepressants, said Jacobsen, who before coming to the U.S. to do research at Duke worked for several life science companies in Denmark.
“Most people get some positive response” from antidepressants, Jacobsen said in a video interview. “But for the vast majority of depressed patients they have significant residual symptoms. … They’re still depressed.”
For a lot of these patients, he added, you alleviate some problems by boosting serotonin levels beyond what their main antidepressant is able to provide.
Evecxia’s main candidate drug, EVX-101, would hopefully provide that boost. “It can synergize with the antidepressant already taken to increase serotonin function,” Jacobsen said.
The problem, however, is that 5-HTP is absorbed by the body too quickly, meaning it would require patients to take handfuls of pills daily, something that is not practical and can lead to side effects like nausea.
So Jacobsen and his colleagues have been working for years to create a slow-release version of its 5-HTP pill that not only decelerates the body’s absorption of the drug but also makes it more targeted. At the moment, it’s designed to be taken as a pill once in the morning and once in the evening.
Jacobsen said Evecxia, and other startups working on antidepressants, have gotten attention from investors recently because of the lack of options for people suffering from depression.
If Prozac or Lexapro don’t work, people can quickly run out of options, Jacobsen said.
That lack of options, Jacobsen added, is why there has been an uptick in interest in drugs like ketamine or psilocybin for treatment of depression.
“The interesting thing is that all of these new ideas that are coming up, most of them are actually based on old studies,” Jacobsen said, noting that psychedelics were being researched in the 1950s before backlash to their use as recreational drugs got them banned by the government.
Similarly, 5-HTP was used in trials frequently in the 1970s and ‘80s, especially in Europe, Jacobsen said, adding it showed promise.
“But the problem was always, you have to take it many times a day,” he said. “At the time you did not have the technology to make slow-release combinations available.”
EVX-101 is now going into Phase 1 safety trials, Jacobsen said, which are done to determine the safety of experimental drugs before they are moved onto larger trials that attempt to prove effectiveness.
The company hopes to use its current funding round to get EVX-101, and another drug in its pipeline called EVX-301, through the first phases of clinical trials.
It also hopes to ramp up its team from three full-time employees to 14 in the next year.