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.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
On a warm summer day, forests, meadows, and riverbanks should be abuzz with insects—from butterflies to beetles and bees. But bugs aren’t as abundant as they used to be, and that’s not a plus for people and the planet, scientists say. The declining numbers of insects, coupled with climate change, can have devastating effects for people in more ways than one. “Insects have been around for a very long time and can live well without humans, but humans cannot live without insects and the many services they provide to us,” says Philipp Lehmann, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. Their decline is not just bad, Lehmann adds. “It’s devastating news for humans.
”Insects and other invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on the planet. They fill most niches in terrestrial and aquatic environments and drive ecosystem functions. Many insects are also economically vital because they pollinate crops that humans depend on for food, including cereals, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A paper published in PNAS notes that insects alone are worth more than $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In places where pollinators like honeybees are in decline, farmers now buy them from rearing facilities at steep prices rather than relying on “Mother Nature.”
And because many insects serve as food for other species—bats, birds and freshwater fish—they’re an integral part of the ecosystem’s food chain. “If you like to eat good food, you should thank an insect,” says Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “And if you like birds in your trees and fish in your streams, you should be concerned with insect conservation.”
Deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural spread have eaten away at large swaths of insect habitat. The increasingly poorly controlled use of insecticides, which harms unintended species, and the proliferation of invasive insect species that disrupt native ecosystems compound the problem.
“There is not a single reason why insects are in decline,” says Jessica L. Ware, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and president of the Entomological Society of America. “There are over one million described insect species, occupying different niches and responding to environmental stressors in different ways.”
Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is using DNA methods to monitor insects.
In addition to habitat loss fueling the decline in insect populations, the other “major drivers” Ware identified are invasive species, climate change, pollution, and fluctuating levels of nitrogen, which play a major role in the lifecycle of plants, some of which serve as insect habitants and others as their food. “The causes of world insect population declines are, unfortunately, very easy to link to human activities,” Lehmann says.
Climate change will undoubtedly make the problem worse. “As temperatures start to rise, it can essentially make it too hot for some insects to survive,” says Emily McDermott, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas. “Conversely in other areas, it could potentially also allow other insects to expand their ranges.”
Without Pollinators Humans Will Starve
We may not think much of our planet’s getting warmer by only one degree Celsius, but it can spell catastrophe for many insects, plants, and animals, because it’s often accompanied by less rainfall. “Changes in precipitation patterns will have cascading consequences across the tree of life,” says David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Insects, in particular, are “very vulnerable” because “they’re small and susceptible to drying.”
For instance, droughts have put the monarch butterfly at risk of being unable to find nectar to “recharge its engine” as it migrates from Canada and New England to Mexico for winter, where it enters a hibernation state until it journeys back in the spring. “The monarch is an iconic and a much-loved insect,” whose migration “is imperiled by climate change,” Wagner says.
Warming and drying trends in the Western United States are perhaps having an even more severe impact on insects than in the eastern region. As a result, “we are seeing fewer individual butterflies per year,” says Matt Forister, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in the United States and thousands in the world. They are pollinators and can serve as good indicators of other species’ health. “Although butterflies are only one group among many important pollinators, in general we assume that what’s bad for butterflies is probably bad for other insects,” says Forister, whose research focuses on butterflies. Climate change and habitat destruction are wreaking havoc on butterflies as well as plants, leading to a further indirect effect on caterpillars and butterflies.
Different insect species have different levels of sensitivity to environmental changes. For example, one-half of the bumblebee species in the United States are showing declines, whereas the other half are not, says Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. Some species of bumble bees are even increasing in their range, seemingly resilient to environmental changes. But other pollinators are dwindling to the point that farmers have to buy from the rearing facilities, which is the case for the California almond industry. “This is a massive cost to the farmer, which could be provided for free, in case the local habitats supported these pollinators,” Lehmann says.
For bees and other insects, climate change can harm the plants they depend on for survival or have a negative impact on the insects directly. Overly rainy and hot conditions may limit flowering in plants or reduce the ability of a pollinator to forage and feed, which then decreases their reproductive success, resulting in dwindling populations, Grozinger explains.
“Nutritional deprivation can also make pollinators more sensitive to viruses and parasites and therefore cause disease spread,” she says. “There are many ways that climate change can reduce our pollinator populations and make it more difficult to grow the many fruit, vegetable and nut crops that depend on pollinators.”
Disease-Causing Insects Can Bring More Outbreaks
While some much-needed insects are declining, certain disease-causing species may be spreading and proliferating, which is another reason for human concern. Many mosquito types spread malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and a brain infection called equine encephalitis, along with other diseases as well as heartworms in dogs, says Michael Sabourin, president of the Vermont Entomological Society. An animal health specialist for the state, Sabourin conducts vector surveys that identify ticks and mosquitoes.
Scientists refer to disease-carrying insects as vector species and, while there’s a limited number of them, many of these infections can be deadly. Fleas were a well-known vector for the bubonic plague, while kissing bugs are a vector for Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness in humans, dogs, and other mammals, Sabourin says.
As the planet heats up, some of the creepy crawlers are able to survive milder winters or move up north. Warmer temperatures and a shorter snow season have spawned an increasing abundance of ticks in Maine, including the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), known to transmit Lyme disease, says Sean Birkel, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute and Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.
Coupled with more frequent and heavier precipitation, rising temperatures bring a longer warm season that can also lead to a longer period of mosquito activity. “While other factors may be at play, climate change affects important underlying conditions that can, in turn, facilitate the spread of vector-borne disease,” Birkel says.
For example, if mosquitoes are finding fewer of their preferred food sources, they may bite humans more. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on sugar as part of their normal behavior, but if they aren’t eating their fill, they may become more bloodthirsty. One recent paper found that sugar-deprived Anopheles gambiae females go for larger blood meals to stay in good health and lay eggs. “More blood meals equals more chances to pick up and transmit a pathogen,” McDermott says, He adds that climate change could reduce the number of available plants to feed on. And while most mosquitoes are “generalist sugar-feeders” meaning that they will likely find alternatives, losing their favorite plants can make them hungrier for blood
Similar to the effect of losing plants, mosquitoes may get turned onto people if they lose their favorite animal species. For example, some studies found that Culex pipiens mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus feed primarily on birds in summer. But that changes in the fall, at least in some places. Because there are fewer birds around, C. pipiens switch to mammals, including humans. And if some disease-carrying insect species proliferate or increase their ranges, that increases chances for human infection, says McDermott. “A larger concern is that climate change could increase vector population sizes, making it more likely that people or animals would be bitten by an infected insect.”
Science Can Help Bring Back the Buzz
To help friendly insects thrive and keep the foes in check, scientists need better ways of trapping, counting, and monitoring insects. It’s not an easy job, but artificial intelligence and molecular methods can help. Ware’s lab uses various environmental DNA methods to monitor freshwater habitats. Molecular technologies hold much promise. The so-called DNA barcodes, in which species are identified using a short string of their genes, can now be used to identify birds, bees, moths and other creatures, and should be used on a larger scale, says Wagner, the University of Connecticut professor. “One day, something akin to Star Trek’s tricorder will soon be on sale down at the local science store.”
Scientists are also deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify insects in agricultural systems and north latitudes where there are fewer bugs, Wagner says. For instance, some automated traps already use the wingbeat frequencies of mosquitoes to distinguish the harmless ones from the disease-carriers. But new technology and software are needed to further expand detection based on vision, sound, and odors.
“Because of their ubiquity, enormity of numbers, and seemingly boundless diversity, we desperately need to develop molecular and AI technologies that will allow us to automate sampling and identification,” says Wagner. “That would accelerate our ability to track insect populations, alert us to the presence of new disease vectors, exotic pest introductions, and unexpected declines.”