A Novel Approach towards Mental Illness

Bek Muslimov is a Co-Founding Partner at Leafy Tunnel. for the past 7 years, he has been investing in European technology and life science companies. His recent investments include ATAI Life Sciences and Iuvo Therapeutics.

Q: How the treatments for mental health and pain disorders has evolved over the years and what are some of the key aspects behind these changes?

A:  We at Leafy Tunnel focuses on finding solutions for two major healthcare challenges – mental health and pain disorders. Being an early-stage capital firm, we aim to invest in budding ventures that promote alternative medicines to address these issues.

If we take a look at the current mental healthcare space, we can see that the current standard of care is ineffective. It is believed that only 50 percent of the patients respond to the existing treatment methods. We want to bring a difference to this predicament. Our company strongly believes that psychedelics and cannabis can be the next major breakthrough in mental health and pain disorders. But, unfortunately, since the 1950s there have been no novel approaches towards drugs for mental health treatment. This has largely obstructed innovations in psychiatric disorders treatments. 

Most of the current treatment approaches are based on the hypothesis that serotonin deficiency is the root cause of depression. This misconception makes doctors prescribe antidepressants to their patients. These antidepressants might help in elevating the level of serotonin, but, it only treats the symptoms of depression rather than the root cause. We, on the other hand, advocate for the acceptance of alternative medicines that can exceptionally bring a difference in these treatments.

Due to unhealthy lifestyles, the prevalence of mental health disorders is increasing in today’s society. Reports show that more than one billion people suffer from mental health disorders. According to WHO, mental illness will be the main cause of mortality and disability by 2030. On top of that, the effects of the pandemic are adding up the pressure to the current situation. This has led the regulators to experiment with stigmatised compounds for better treatment outcomes. This is where we come in. We would like to be a part of a movement that addresses one of the largest healthcare challenges.

As a result, the regulators, most notably FDA in the US are now pushing the idea of stigmatized compound medicine for mental health treatments. The approval of Spravato (esketamine) nasal spray can be considered a significant milestone for the mental health space. The good news is that more life science companies are running clinical trials. There is a revival of scientific interest in psychedelic compounds. Many notable names are coming forward to push this idea. This is exhilarating and most needed considering the scale of today’s mental health crisis.

"Our company strongly believes that psychedelics and cannabis can be the next major breakthrough in mental health and pain disorders" 

Now, let’s talk about pain disorders. We, as a company, chose to address pain disorders since there is a high comorbidity between mental health and pain disorders. It is proven that people who suffer from depression are most likely to experience pain disorders or vice versa. The comorbidity rate here is more than 50 percent. The treatments also lack innovations that force pain therapists to follow the traditional way of treatment methods. One such treatment method includes opioids. This is where it goes wrong because opioids do have severe side effects. Reports show that every patient under the prescription did develop an addiction later. Besides, opioid overdose deaths in the US are over 70 percent compared to other overdose accidents. This has led the regulators to look into a much safer option. In this regard, cannabis is a better substitute. For a fact, cannabis also helps to reduce opioid addiction. In many US states where medical cannabis is legal, opioid overdoses are reported to be about 25 percent less. This is why we push the idea of cannabis and psychedelic compounds for mental illness.

Q: When it comes to a larger part of society, most people still see cannabis as a recreational drug. How does using cannabis play a huge role in addressing mental health and pain disorders in the future?

A: The biggest challenge we face right now is the stigma around cannabis. Even though cannabis has been used as a medicine for centuries now. Due to addiction misconception, a lot of stigmas grew around it. This made the medicinal side of cannabis fade away eventually. Additionally, the growth of the recreational cannabis market especially in North America hindered the clinical research and therapeutic properties of cannabis. The investments also went to the recreational side. 

That being said, here at Leafy Tunnel, we focus on European cannabis. The interesting part is that Europe follows a medical path for cannabis rather than a recreational one. And it’s expected to stay the same for next 5-7 years. This gives more time to run clinical research and trials. Slowly the stigmas around cannabis can be eradicated once we collect enough data to support its therapeutic sides

Furthermore, since there is a federal prohibition of cannabis in the US, universities restrain themselves from running clinical trials on cannabis in fear of losing federal funding. But, in Europe, there are no such prohibitions. This opens up the chance to collaborate with many universities across Europe. 

Q: Is there any advice that you would like to share with other life science companies that are developing novel approaches to this cause?

A: Firstly, my advice would be to find the right partners and investors for your initiatives. It is highly important considering the fact that we are in need of visionaries to support this cause. 

Secondly, I would like to address an issue that is commonly seen among young entrepreneurs. They usually tend to rush to lease companies on the London stock exchange or any other global stock exchange. This can be shortsighted, in my opinion, entrepreneurs’ access to the capital market should be gradual and they should also be able to manage the administrative burdens. If not, it can lead to them wasting time on insignificant tasks rather than focusing on the main goal. 

I would like to add that entrepreneurs should understand the nature of investments in pharma and life science companies. Here the investment is long-term. Keeping that in mind, when we invest, we invest in companies that can truly transform the mental health space. Moreover, the clinical trials will take up to 6-8 years to get actually approved and collect enough data and then to be introduced to the markets. So, entrepreneurs should possess that sort of mindset.

Q: Is there any additional points that you would like to add?

A: I would like to emphasize one area where Leafy Tunnel is quite active and that is digital biomarkers. The significance of biomarkers in today’s mental healthcare space is crucial. Compared to other healthcare categories, psychiatry is the one sector that falls short in terms of advancements. Current psychiatric diagnosis largely depends on questionnaires. These are very subjective and rely on a very limited amount of data. This method is ineffective and doesn’t produce the desired outcome. That is why we are looking for companies that can transform this sector. To be precise, companies can leverage technological advancements like brain imaging tools to collect data and create biomarkers. It helps in the proper diagnosis and certifies patients suffering from mental illness.

Weekly Brief

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