New drug for schizophrenia could meet desperate need for better treatments
Schizophrenia is a debilitating mental health condition that affects around 24 million people worldwide. Patients experience hallucinations and delusions when they develop schizophrenia, with experts referring to these new thoughts and behaviors as positive symptoms. They also suffer from negative symptoms in which they lose important functions, suffering from dulled emotions, lack of purpose and social withdrawal.
Currently available drugs can control only a portion of these symptoms but, on August 8th, Karuna Therapeutics announced its completion of a phase 3 clinical trial that found a new drug called KarXT could treat both positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia. It could mean substantial progress against a problem that has stymied scientists for decades.
A long-standing problem
Since the 1950s, antipsychotics have been used to treat schizophrenia. People who suffer from it are thought to have too much of a brain chemical called dopamine, and antipsychotics work by blocking dopamine receptors in the brain. They can be effective in treating positive symptoms but have little impact on the negative ones, which can be devastating for a patient’s quality of life, making it difficult to maintain employment and have successful relationships. About 30 percent of schizophrenia patients don't actually respond to antipsychotics at all. Current drugs can also have adverse side effects including elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and movements that patients cannot control.
The recent clinical trial heralds a new treatment approach. “We believe it marks an important advancement for patients given its new and completely different mechanism of action from current therapies,” says Andrew Miller, COO of Karuna.
Scientists have been looking to develop alternatives. However, “the field of drug treatment of schizophrenia is currently in the doldrums,” says Peter McKenna, a senior researcher at FIDMAG Research Foundation in Spain which specialises in mental health.
In the 2000s there was a major push to target a brain receptor for a chemical called glutamate. Evidence suggested that this receptor is abnormal in the brains of schizophrenia patients, but attempts to try glutamate failed in clinical trials.
After that, many pharmaceutical companies dropped out of the race for a more useful treatment. But some companies continued to search, such as Karuna Therapeutics, led by founder and Chief Operating Officer Andrew Miller and CEO Steve Paul. The recent clinical trial suggests their persistence has led to an important breakthrough with their drug, KarXT. “We believe it marks an important advancement for patients given its new and completely different mechanism of action from current therapies,” Miller says.
How it works
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that pass signals between neurons. To work effectively, neurotransmitters need a receptor to bind to. A neurotransmitter called acetylcholine seems to be especially important in schizophrenia. It interacts with sites called muscarinic receptors, which are involved in the network of nerves that calm your body after a stressful event. Post mortem studies in people with schizophrenia have shown that two muscarinic receptors in the brain, the M1 and M4 receptors, are activated at unusually low levels because they don’t receive enough signals from acetylcholine.
The M4 receptor appears to play a role in psychosis. The M1 receptor is also associated with psychosis but is primarily thought to be involved in cognition. KarXT, taken orally, works by activating both of these receptors to signal properly. It is this twofold action that seems to explain its effectiveness. “[The drug’s] design enables the preferential stimulation of these muscarinic receptors in the brain,” Miller says.
How it developed
It all started in the early 1990s when Paul was at pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. He discovered that Xanomeline, the drug they were testing on Alzheimer's patients, had antipsychotic effects. It worked by stimulating M1 and M4 receptors, so he and his colleagues decided to test Xanomeline on schizophrenia patients, supported by research on the connection between muscarinic receptors and psychosis. They found that Xanomeline reduced both positive and negative symptoms.
Unfortunately, it also caused significant side effects. The problem was that stimulating the M1 and M4 receptors in the brain also stimulated muscarinic receptors in the body that led to severe vomiting, diarrhea and even the temporary loss of consciousness.
In the end, Eli Lilly discontinued the clinical trials for the drug, but Miller set up Karuna Therapeutics to develop a solution. “I was determined to find a way to harness the therapeutic benefit demonstrated in studies of Xanomeline, while eliminating side effects that limited its development,” Miller says.
He analysed over 7,000 possible ways of mixing Xanomeline with other agents before settling on KarXT. It combines Xanomeline with a drug called Trospium Chloride, which blocks muscarinic receptors in the body – taking care of the side effects such as vomiting – but leaves them unblocked in the brain. Paul was so excited by Miller’s progress that he joined Karuna after leaving Eli Lilly and founding two previous startups.
“It's a very important approach,” says Rick Adams, Future Leaders Fellow in the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Centre for Medical Image Computing at University College London. “We are in desperate need of alternative drug targets and this target is one of the best. There are other alternative targets, but not many are as close to being successful as the muscarinic receptor drug.”
Following a successful phase 2 clinical trial in 2019, the most recent trial involved 126 patients who were given KarXT, and 126 who were given a placebo. Compared to the placebo, patients taking KarXT had a significant 9.6 point reduction in the positive and negative syndrome scale (PANSS), the standard for rating schizophrenic symptoms.
KarXT also led to statistically significant declines in positive and negative symptoms compared to the placebo. “The results suggest that KarXT could be a potentially game-changing option in the management of both positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia,” Miller says.
Robert McCutcheon, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Oxford University, is optimistic about the side effects but highlights the need for more safety trials.
McKenna, the researcher at FIDMAG Foundation, agrees about the drug’s potential. “The new [phase 3] study is positive,” he says. “It is reassuring that one is not dealing with a drug that works in one trial and then inexplicably fails in the next one.”
Robert McCutcheon, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Oxford University, said the drug is an unprecedented step forward. “KarXT is one of the first drugs with a novel mechanism of action to show promise in clinical trials.”
Even though the drug blocks muscarine receptors in the body, some patients still suffered from adverse side effects like vomiting, dizziness and diarrhea. But in general, these effects were mild to moderate, especially compared to dopamine-blocking antipsychotics or Xanomeline on its own.
McCutcheon is optimistic about the side effects but highlights the need for more safety trials. “The trial results suggest that gastrointestinal side effects appear to be manageable,” he says. “We know, however, from previous antipsychotic drugs that the full picture regarding the extent of side effects can sometimes take longer to become apparent to clinicians and patients. Careful ongoing assessment during a longer period of treatment will therefore be important.”
The team is currently conducting three other trials to evaluate the efficacy and long-term safety of KarXT. Their goal is to receive FDA approval next year.
Karuna is also conducting trials to evaluate the effectiveness of KarXT in treating psychosis in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s.
The big hope is that they will soon be able to provide a radically different drug to help many patients with schizophrenia. “We are another step closer to potentially providing the first new class of medicine in more than 50 years to the millions of people worldwide living with schizophrenia,” says Miller.
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.