This year, our industry has been working around the clock to combat the COVID-19 virus, including developing effective therapeutics to treat COVID-19 and vaccines to prevent future infections. A key piece of that has been the impact the pandemic has had on mental health.
I had the opportunity to connect with Barry Greene, CEO of Sage Therapeutics, about the company’s efforts to address COVID-19’s impact.
Q: The combined health and economic shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to an unprecedented mental health crisis. Can you talk about the story we have witnessed this past year and how Sage is approaching COVID-19’s mental health impact on patients?A: Depression was already a global crisis before the pandemic set in – it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide, with World Health Organization estimates of more than 264 million people suffering from the disorder. As you’d expect, COVID-19’s social, economic and health shocks compounded what we view at Sage as a brain health pandemic. One research study found a four-fold increase in the rates of depression symptoms in the United States alone, and a near doubling of adult suicidalityi. These increases will likely affect the world for years to come, slowing our economic recovery, broadening the unmet medical need and further exposing the urgent need for novel brain health medicines.
Our research is focused on finding ways to help improve or correct brain function in serious brain health disorders, and to help it stay that way. Sage is exploring new pathways in the brain with a focus on developing novel therapies that modulate the GABA and NMDA pathways. The GABA system is the major inhibitory pathway of the brain (the brake of your car) where NMDA is the major excitatory pathway (car’s gas). Dysfunction in either of these two systems is known to be at the core of numerous brain health disorders.
Our mission is to make medicines that matter so people can get better, sooner. We’re not content with incremental shifts in progress or treatments that take months to kick in, while lives are at risk. We want to pioneer therapies that work faster and last longer. After COVID-19, depression may be the most pressing public health crisis in the world today, and Sage is working to find ways to treat it with the urgency and innovation that patients deserve.
Q: Those numbers are truly staggering. How has Sage thought more broadly about mental health treatments in light of COVID-19?A: The added pressures from COVID-19 have exposed flaws in how the United States and the rest of the world provide mental health services. Certainly, we need to provide ways for people who need help to get help. We need to find rapid-acting, longer-lasting and more effective treatments for brain health disorders. We need to provide options to all health care providers and patients to treat depression in new ways instead of as a chronic illness that requires ongoing medication. And, we need to change the mindset that depression is a failure of will – a mindset that can prevent people from seeking treatment.
We need to raise awareness about the biologic underpinnings of mental illness. We need policymakers to understand the impact of this crisis on their communities, and engage in a collaborative effort to build community-based support for a medical approach to brain health. There is hope when people and organizations come together to create positive change. Collectively we can move from awareness to appropriate action, to create a brain health movement with the potential to transform the lives of millions of people.
Q: We’re all hoping for life to go back to “normal” as soon as possible. What is your view of the long-term effects of COVID-19, particularly on patients’ mental health?A: We are in a mental health crisis – a brain health pandemic – exacerbated by COVID-19. What was already an overburdened and underfunded system of care, now presents itself with an unprecedented strain that has left people suffering.
Brain health must be foundational to our recovery from COVID-19. We cannot move forward and rebuild our infrastructure without it. The risk is an intergenerational one, with families, society and national economies paying the price.
Research has shown that mental illness commonly increases following major disruptions like epidemics, financial depressions and civil unrest. The past two years have brought together all those crises and more. In addition to the social costs, in the United States, treating depression alone costs $110 billion annuallyii – a staggering economic burden for our country overall.
Q: Beyond COVID-19, one of Sage’s pillars is improving brain health. What does the outlook look like for research in this often difficult to navigate space?A: We see hope and opportunity and believe there is still room for innovation in the treatment of brain health disorders. To advance medical research, we need to question the status quo. To ask questions that haven’t yet been answered. And to leverage our learnings about the brain to help define the path forward and enable progress.
The human brain is very complex. Despite decades of research, modern medicine still doesn’t have a full picture of how brain function goes wrong.
It’s why we think differently about how we discover and develop new medicines.
In under a decade, Sage has made deep scientific progress in understanding brain function, and we are applying that understanding to how we discover and develop medicines. We focus on understanding how modifying key brain receptors impacts brain function at the network level, and that principle guides our focus on translatable endpoints in clinical development, which we use to understand how our candidate drugs may influence the human brain.
Our R&D strategy is proactive and predictive. One that “follows the science” with discovery efforts and “leads with human data” in a manner intended to predictively approach drug development with the goal of addressing unmet needs for patients who need new approaches.
When I think about our mission, I believe we’re rising to the challenge.
As always, you can stay up-to-date with the work the biopharmaceutical industry is doing to combat COVID-19 here.
i Czeisler M, Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic - United States, June 24-30, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020;69(32):1049-1057
ii American Heart Society, 2018
Stephen J. Ubl Stephen J. Ubl is president and chief executive officer of PhRMA. Mr. Ubl leads PhRMA’s work preserving and strengthening a health care and economic environment that encourages medical innovation, new drug discovery and access to life-saving medicines. Ubl is recognized around the world as a leading health care advocate and policy expert who collaborates successfully with diverse stakeholder groups – including patient and physician groups, regulators, public and private payers, and global trade organizations – to help ensure timely patient access to innovative treatments and cures.