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Challenge Seeks Reliable Depression Diagnostics, Models

Sad, depressed

(Daniel Reche, Pixabay)

22 June 2021. A new competition seeks reliable biological methods for detecting depression and decision models that connect diagnostics to effective disease treatments. The Multi-Channel Psych challenge, with a $50 million projected pay out, is conducted by Wellcome Leap, a research and development funding organization in Los Angeles that aims to produce breakthrough medical technologies at a faster pace than conventional processes.

Wellcome Leap says current methods for diagnosing and treating depression are at best haphazard with limited results. In the program announcement, the organization cites data showing depression ranks as the third leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting some 264 million people and resulting in 800,000 suicides a year. In addition, says Wellcome Leap, National Institutes of Health funded $22 billion in research on depression over the past 20 years, yet only one-third of patients respond substantially to medications or psychotherapy treatments.

Depression, says Wellcome Leap, is a complex disease that requires a detailed, coordinated, and well-structured process guiding diagnostics and treatments. The organization notes that drugs for depression are being developed and approved, with many of the new treatments addressing different neurological mechanisms and pathways. Yet therapy guidelines continue to call for using a class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, as a first-line treatment, with trial-and-error use of other SSRIs or combinations of drugs if the first treatments fail. More detailed and evidence-based models are needed, says Wellcome Leap, to connect depression treatments to the patient’s biology.

Multi-Channel Psych is seeking diagnostics for anhedonic depression, where individuals lose the ability to experience pleasure, with at least the same accuracy and reliability of mammograms to detect breast cancer. Those diagnostics, says the organization, first need to identify biomarkers, or biological indicators, preferably at multiple biological points such as genomics, metabolism, or microbiome.

End-to-end models connecting diagnostics to treatments

Detection methods for anhedonic depression also need to capture mood symptoms in what Wellcome Leap calls honest quantifiable signals. Those signals, says the organization, should connect trackable biometric indicators, such as voice or facial indicators, measures of sleep or movements, social interaction, or caloric intake to measurable biomarkers, preferably gauged with non-invasive or low-cost screening technologies. The program announcement notes a preference for wearable or at-home technologies instead of clinicians to collect data.

Multi-Channel Psych likewise calls for end-to-end decision models connecting anhedonic depression diagnostics to treatments. Those models, says Wellcome Leap, should integrate external symptoms and behavioral indicators with internal biological conditions in a consistent and predictable way. The organization expects proposed models will include detailed sub-models representing various levels of granularity, linked to an overall general predictive model.

The organization asks teams from academic labs, research institutes, companies, and government labs to participate in Multi-Channel Psych. First abstract submissions are due by 22 July, with feedback given to teams by 4 Aug. Participants then have 30 days to submit full proposals, with funding decisions announced by 1 Oct.

Wellcome Leap began in 2018, spun-off from the Wellcome Trust in the U.K., to create a new process for speeding much needed medical discoveries from initial concept through delivery. Wellcome Leap says it’s modeled on the work of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that funds ground-breaking discoveries in military-related technologies. As reported by Science & Enterprise in January, Wellcome Leap established a worldwide network of research institutions using a simplified master funding agreement, to cut the often long lead-times needed to get projects underway.

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