Dr. Yvonne Lai is well known for her work at IU’s Gill Center for Biomolecular Science. However, she and her collaborators are also making waves in the business world with the growth of their startup company Anagin Inc., a promising pharmaceutical venture located in Indianapolis.
Dr. Lai’s research focuses on novel drug therapies for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a common neurological disorder that affects seven to eight percent of the population. Available treatments come with a disturbing list of side effects and do not target the disorder’s underlying neural mechanisms. Tackling this problem has been a long journey for Dr. Lai. Now, with the help of a new grant, solutions seem closer.
Prior to her arrival at IU, Dr. Lai developed a compound that works differently from earlier medications. The earlier medications targeted the glutamate receptor, which is located at the surface of neurons, and blocked the normal as well as pathological glutamate signaling. Rather than blocking glutamate signaling at the receptor, Dr. Lai’s compound appears to inhibit the cascade of events that occur after glutamate binds to the receptor. Thus, the compound prevents detrimental changes in the brain’s neurons while also bypassing the severe side effects that arise when all glutamate receptor signaling is blocked.
Soon after her arrival at IU, Dr. Lai collaborated with Psychological and Brain Sciences professor Andrea Hohmann to explore the compound’s effectiveness in a rodent model of chronic pain. She then teamed up with IU School of Medicine Associate Dean and Distinguished Professor Anantha Shekhar to test the compound’s effectiveness in a rodent model of PTSD. They found that the compound was effective in rodents, which motivated them to found Anagin, a small start-up company that focuses on novel PTSD treatments.
In 2014, Dr. Lai and her colleagues were among a select group of scientists to receive an Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Grant from the National Institutes of Health. With this funding, they tested a large number of alternatives to Dr. Lai’s original prototype compound, and successfully identified a set of compounds that reduced PTSD-like symptoms in rodents without eliciting severe side effects.
Since then, Anagin has continued to grow. Additional scientists and entrepreneurs have joined the company, including Dr. Jaswant Gidda as the CEO, Jim Schulz as the COO and CFO, and an outstanding Board of Directors, thereby establishing Anagin as an independently-run business. Now, a second SBIR grant for $3 million, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, places them closer to their goal of developing a new drug to treat PTSD. The team will design improved versions of their compounds that can be taken orally.
Dr. Lai and her colleagues at Anagin hope to find a candidate compound that qualifies for testing in human patients. If the compound successfully makes it through clinical trials and into the market, it would be the first drug of its kind to safely target an underlying mechanism of PTSD. This candidate drug could one day transform the lives of millions of PTSD patients.
I would additionally like to acknowledge Liz Rosdeitcher, Dr. Yvonne Lai, and Dr. Lai’s colleagues at Anagin, and thank them for their assistance in editing this article.