- Advances in depression treatment have been rare over the past few decades.
- But biotech companies are looking for ways to improve treatments.
- While some are developing drugs that work faster, others are targeting subtypes of the disorder.
Depression is an incredibly common disorder that affects roughly 280 million people worldwide.
But treatments for mental-health illnesses, like depression, haven’t changed much over the past few decades. An estimated one-third of patients who try antidepressant treatments don’t see improvements in their symptoms.
The pandemic has made things worse. Depression symptoms tripled in the first year of the pandemic and rose again in the second year, according to a paper published in The Lancet Regional Health. And 1 in 5 adults reported receiving mental health treatment in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some biotech companies are looking to fundamentally change how we treat mental illnesses like depression.
Biogen and Sage are developing an antidepressant that patients take for only two weeks. Meanwhile, neuroscience company Axsome Therapeutics‘ new drug Auvelity, which worked faster than other antidepressants in clinical trials, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in August.
On the heels of the approval of a ketamine-based depression treatment developed by Johnson & Johnson unit Janssen in 2019, a smattering of companies are testing psychedelic compounds to see if they can help patients with hard-to-treat depression.
Insider put together a roundup of the most promising depression treatments today, both those that have won approval and those that are in the later stages of the research process.
Axsome’s new drug works faster
Auvelity, developed by neuroscience-focused biotech company Axsome, was approved by the FDA last year. It became the first oral antidepressant drug to be approved by US regulators in decades.
Unlike most depression treatments on the market, Auvelity is rapid-acting, which means it offers faster relief for patients. In trials, the drug helped to improve depressive symptoms in patients within one week.
SVB Securities analysts said in August that they expect Auvelity to become a notable product in the major depressive disorder market. MDD is also known as clinical depression and is defined by persistent depressive symptoms.
Sage and Biogen are developing an antidepressant that patients only need to take for two weeks
The Biogen headquarters in Cambridge, Mass.
AP Photo/Steven Senne
Pharmaceutical companies Biogen and Sage are developing an antidepressant that patients take for only two weeks. That’s in contrast to currently available treatments, many of which are recommended to be taken for at least six months or sometimes longer, depending on the patient.
While the drug, called zuranolone, has shown to improve symptoms of major depressive disorder and postpartum depression in clinical trials, Stifel analysts said in a January note there are still open questions around how long the effects will last and how patients take the drug.
They added, however, that data from clinical trials suggest the drug is likely to be approved.
In December, the companies announced that they had completed their application requesting the FDA approve the drug.
Cowen analysts said in a January note that the drug could launch as soon as the end of this year.
According to Biogen CEO Christopher Viehbacher, zuranolone could be a new blockbuster for the company.
“I think zuranolone is the biggest undervalued potential of Biogen,” Viehbacher said at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco in early January.
Smaller startups are trying to make treatments more precise — so that they can help patients with subtypes of the disease
Amit Etkin is the founder and CEO of Alto Neuroscience
Conditions like depression aren’t a monolith; research has shown that there may be several different forms of depression, influenced by factors like genetics and the environment.
But the treatments available today are often prescribed as if depression is a singular disorder. A handful of companies are looking to change that by developing tailored drugs that may work better for patients with specific subtypes of depression.
Alto Neuroscience, for example, announced earlier this year that its treatment ALTO-100 worked better for patients with poor cognition compared to those with good cognition in a midstage trial. The startup is using biological measurements — called biomarkers — to develop drugs for mental illnesses like depression and PTSD.
HMNC Brain Health is doing similar work. The startup is developing personalized treatments for depression geared toward patients who take tests — namely, blood draws that will undergo a genomic analysis, or an examination of the patient’s genetic makeup — to determine whether they would be a good fit for a specific kind of treatment.
In October, the company raised $14 million to progress the company’s pipeline of drugs and expand its team.
A few companies are testing psychedelics to treat depression
Psychedelics like psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, have shown in studies that they could be an effective treatment for depression, and especially for difficult-to-treat depression.
While most companies focused on psychedelics are in early stages of research, a handful are in mid-stage trials. One company, Compass Pathways, is aiming to recruit close to 1,000 participants for a late-stage study that could become the biggest psychedelics clinical trial in the world.
Compass CEO Kabir Nath told Insider in November that the company expects to release data from its late stage trials in 2024 and 2025.