KU psychiatry researchers in Wichita develop new treatment for depression

Researchers for the University of Kansas School of Medicine in Wichita have developed a new depression treatment that aims to help people who don’t respond to medications like Prozac and Zoloft.

Drs. Sheldon Preskorn and Matthew Macaluso, who are psychiatry researchers for the school, helped develop a nasal spray treatment called esketamine, which will be marketed under the name Spravato, according to a KU news release. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the treatment in March.

“This really provides hope for people who suffer from depression — a very serious illness — and who did not get better with the drugs that are currently on the market,” Macaluso said Friday in a phone interview with the Journal-World.

Prior to Spravato, depression treatments only worked through monoamine neurotransmitters in the brain, which include serotonin and dopamine. Spravato uses a different neurotransmitter, glutamate.

The new treatment aims to be an alternative for people who suffer from depression but have not been able to find a viable treatment through the monoamine medications, which include Prozac and Zoloft.

“This medicine works via a different mechanism. That mechanism produces meaningful effects in approximately 60 percent of patients not meaningfully helped by existing antidepressants and within 24 hours,” Preskorn said, according to the news release. “It’s really quite different.”

The new treatment has been a long time coming for Preskorn, who first noticed the drug’s potential in a study about 10 years ago. That study, conducted in Wichita, has been cited more than 400 times in the world’s medical literature, according to the release.

“I did one of the earliest studies showing that drugs of (esketamine’s) nature worked,” Preskorn said. “It wasn’t esketamine, but it showed that this mechanism of action worked in patients with otherwise treatment-resistant depression.”

Macaluso also played a big role in the drug’s development, including conducting the clinical trials that led to the FDA’s approval.

Macaluso, who also serves as the school’s assistant dean for research, studied patients whose depression had not responded well enough to two of the existing treatments. He gave patients doses of esketamine twice weekly for a month, then lowered the frequency to once every two weeks.

“We saw good responses to the drug in most but not all the patients,” Macaluso said, according to the news release. “Many of the individuals in the study told us it was a life-changing treatment for them. These were people who had lost interest in life, had less energy and were chronically ill — truly suffering.”


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