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Small Biz Grant Funds PTSD Diagnostic, Treatment

Road-side bomb

Road-side bomb explosion in Afghanistan (Stephen Szczurek, U.S. Air Force).

16 Dec. 2019. A company creating diagnostics and a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is receiving initial funding to develop its products. Neurovation Labs in New York is a recipient of an early-stage Small Business Innovation Research award from the U.S. Air Force to develop a reliable molecular test for PTSD and a treatment addressing that biomarker.

PTSD is a chronic debilitating condition traced to fearful or dangerous experiences — such as military combat — that lead to recurring flashbacks, fearful thoughts, or dreams that interfere with everyday routines and relationships. Symptoms can also include avoidance of situations that remind the individual of fearful experiences, difficulty sleeping, angry outbursts, distorted guilt or blame feelings, and negative thoughts about oneself. Neurovation Labs cites data showing PTSD affects 7 to 10 percent of the U.S. population, with an economic burden of more than $42 billion.

The company says most PTSD diagnostics today are largely symptom checklists that rely on self-reporting, with treatments including drugs aimed to address those symptoms or behavioral therapies with limited effectiveness. Neurovation Labs takes a different approach to PTSD, addressing molecular changes in individuals brought on by the intense fear generated by the trauma.

Neurovation Labs is a four year-old spin-off enterprise from the lab of UCLA psychology professor Michael Fanselow, a co-founder of the company with former graduate student Jennifer Perusini, now Neurovation’s CEO. Fanselow and Perusini studied molecular changes in lab animals induced with fear-producing electric shocks, which produces noticeable and measurable chemical changes.

Perusini and Fanselow, also the company’s research director, say in humans, an analogous chemical reaction occurs, that increases levels of the hormone corticosterone in the adrenal glands, in turn producing greater amounts of the protein glutamate A1 or GluA1 in neurons or nerve cells. In the fear center of the brain, a set of neurons called the basolateral amygdala, increased levels of GluA1 can occur long after the trauma occurs, say the researchers, offering a molecular target for diagnosing PTSD, as well as designing treatments for the disease.

To diagnose PTSD, Neurovation Labs is developing a tracer chemical code-named NVL-1 that reacts to GluA1 biomarker proteins in the basolateral amygdala. Those chemical reactions are then visible on routine brain scans indicating elevated GluA1 levels, and thus someone with PTSD, a more reliable measure of the disorder than symptom checklists.

The company says NVL-1 has potential as a diagnostic indicator of other disorders involving GluA1 protein levels, such as ALS, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s disease. NVL-1, says Neurovation, is in late preclinical stages. An oral treatment for PTSD that aims to decrease GluA1 protein levels is still in discovery phase.

The Small Business Innovation Research or SBIR award is made through the Air Force’s AFWERX program that includes set-aside research funds for small businesses, such as SBIR. The early-stage or phase 1 SBIR grants, like the award for Neurovation Labs, aim to prove the technology’s scientific and commercial feasibility, and are normally budgeted up to $150,00 for six months. On completion of this first phase, the company can qualify for more comprehensive product development, with funding up to $1 million for two years.

“Successful development of our products will allow not only for a definitive diagnosis of PTSD,” says Perusini in a company statement, “but also immediate targeted treatment. This approach, based on measurable physical indicators, represents a marked change in mental health care.”

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