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How the treatments for mental health and pain disorders have evolved over the years, and what are some of the key aspects behind these changes?
Due to various reasons including more hectic lifestyles, the prevalence of mental health disorders is increasing in today’s society. Reports show that more than one billion people suffer from mental health disorders. According to WHO, mental illness will be the main cause of mortality and disability by 2030. On top of that, the effects of the pandemic are adding up the pressure to the current situation.
However, if we take a look at the mental healthcare space, we can see that since the 1950s, there have been no novel approaches towards drugs for mental health treatment. This current standard of care is also ineffective for the most part. It is believed that only 50 percent of patients respond to the existing mental health treatment methods. Why?
Most of the current treatment approaches are based on the hypothesis that serotonin deficiency is the root cause of depression. This misconception makes doctors reliant on the prescription of antidepressants to their patients as the first-line treatment. These antidepressants might help in elevating the level of serotonin, but it only treats the symptoms of depression rather than the root cause. As a result, the regulators—most notably the FDA in the U.S. are more opened now to embrace the idea of stigmatised compound medicine for mental health treatments and the good news is that more life science companies are now running clinical trials of novel psychiatric drugs. There is thus a revival of scientific interest in psychedelic compounds. In this regard, the approval of Johnson & Johnson’s Spravato (esketamine) nasal spray can be considered a significant milestone for the mental health space. This is one of the most exhilarating and most needed alternative treatment options considering the scale of today’s mental health crisis.
Now, let’s talk about pain disorders. There is a high comorbidity between mental health and pain disorders. It is proven that people who suffer from depression are most likely to experience pain disorders or vice versa. The comorbidity rate for such scenarios is more than 50 percent. The treatments for pain disorder also lack innovations that force pain therapists to follow the traditional treatment methods. One such treatment method includes opioids. This is where it goes wrong because opioids do have severe side effects. Reports show that every patient under the prescription develops an addiction later. Besides, deaths from opioid overdoses in the U.S. are over 70 percent compared to other overdose accidents. This has led the regulators to look into a much safer option. In this context, cannabis is a scientifically proven better substitute. As a matter of fact, cannabis also helps to reduce opioid addiction. In many U.S. states where medical cannabis is legal, opioid overdoses are reported to be about 25 percent less. This is why we need to push the idea of cannabis and psychedelic compounds for addressing mental health disorders.
When it comes to a larger part of society, most people still see cannabis as a recreational drug. How does using cannabis play a huge role in addressing mental health and pain disorders in the future?
The biggest challenge we face right now is the stigma around cannabis, even though cannabis has been used as a medicine for centuries now
Due to addiction misconceptions, many stigmas have grown around it, which
the medicinal side of cannabis being ignored for the last 70 years. Additionally, the growth of the recreational cannabis market, especially in North America, hindered the clinical research and therapeutic properties of cannabis. The investments also went to the recreational side. Furthermore, since there is a federal prohibition on cannabis in the U.S., universities restrain themselves from running clinical trials on cannabis in fear of losing federal funding.
That being said, in Europe, there are no such prohibitions. This opens up the chance to collaborate with many universities across Europe. The interesting part is that Europe follows a medical path for cannabis rather than a recreational one. This is expected to stay the same for the next 5 to 7 years. This gives the sector more time to run clinical research and trials. Slowly the stigmas around cannabis can be eradicated once we collect enough data to support its therapeutic sides.
Is there any advice you would like to share with other life science companies developing novel approaches to treating mental health disorders?
Firstly, my advice would be to find the right partners and investors for your initiatives. It is highly important because we are in need of visionaries to support this cause.
Secondly, I would like to address an issue that is commonly seen among young entrepreneurs. They usually tend to rush to list companies on the London stock exchange or any other global stock exchange but this can be short-sighted. In my opinion, entrepreneurs should move into the capital market gradually, and they should also be able to manage the administrative burdens efficiently. If not, it can lead them to waste time on insignificant tasks rather than focusing on the primary goal. Moreover, the clinical trials will take up to 6-8 years to get approved and collect enough data and then to be introduced to the markets. So, entrepreneurs should possess that sort of mindset.
I would also like to add that entrepreneurs should understand the nature of investments in pharma and life science companies. Here the investment is long-term. Keeping that in mind, when Leafy Tunnel invests, we invest in companies that can truly transform the mental health space.
Is there any additional points that you would like to add?
I would like to emphasise one area where Leafy Tunnel also has an interest: digital biomarkers. The significance of biomarkers in today’s mental healthcare space is crucial. Compared to other healthcare categories, psychiatry is the one sector that falls short in terms of innovations. Current psychiatric diagnosis largely depends on questionnaires, and these are very subjective and rely on a very limited amount of data. This method is ineffective and doesn’t produce the desired outcome. That is why we are looking for companies that can transform this sector. To be precise, companies that can leverage technological advancements like brain imaging tools to collect data and create biomarkers. It will help them in transforming the process of diagnosis and certify patients suffering from mental illness.