'Brain-In-A-Dish' Helps Patients Find The Right Antidepressant

Ariel Grossman, NoCamels

Through an Israeli startup's tech, physicians will soon be able to give patients a list of the antidepressants that would work best for them.

Hundreds of millions of people struggle with depression worldwide, and finding the right antidepressant can require a lot of trial and error.

But with a simple blood sample, physicians will soon be able to get a list of the antidepressants that will work best for patients, together with details of the side effects they are likely to experience.

Over 60 percent of patients are prescribed more than one medication until they find something that works. And in the meantime, their symptoms can get worse.

Israeli health tech startup Genetika+ is using Nobel Prize-winning technology to replicate a blood sample and turn it into a “brain-in-a-dish” – so they can determine which antidepressants would be most effective.

The blood is first turned into stem cells – the body’s raw materials from which all other cells with specialized functions are generated – then into frontal brain neurons, which originate in the region of the brain that is responsible for emotion and is most affected by mental illness.

Hundreds of these neurons are put in a dish, and are exposed to over 70 different antidepressants to see what the patient’s unique reactions to each medication would be.

“We help you find out which drug gets to the brain, what it does in the brain, and whether you can tolerate the side effects,” says Talia Cohen Solal, CEO and Co-founder of Genetika+, which will market the service as NeuroKaire.

Depression affects 300 million people globally, and as a result of COVID-19, these numbers have risen at least threefold in the United States alone.

“Once somebody actually gets the strength to go to a physician and say ‘look, I need help,’ there’s this trial and error process where a patient has to try multiple drugs in their body, testing drug after drug and experiencing a ton of side effects,” Cohen Solal tells NoCamels. “It’s just a guessing game until they get the right drug.”

Some patients need to try six or seven types of medication until they find what works for them. It can then take six to eight weeks for the medication to start working, leaving them struggling for over a year.

Genetika+ will suggest several antidepressants, because even the best medication can stop being effective. One in five people find their antidepressant stops working within two years because they build up a tolerance, or because of stress, interactions with other medications, or drug and alcohol use.

The brain-in-a-dish technology also indicates whether they will be able to tolerate the side effects. Cohen Solal says other companies can only tell a patient whether the drug will affect them, but not what it will do to their brain.

“We’re bringing a precision medicine tool to help physicians get to the right drug for the right patient,” she says.

Cohen Solal was always interested in mental health, and as a child she was exposed to cousins who were struggling with depression. Seeing how it affected her family, she understood that the disease needed to get so much more attention.

Throughout her postdoc and independent research at Columbia University, USA, she saw technologies that could bring new opportunities to people’s lives and improve them. After making Aliyah, Cohen Solal, together with Dr. Daphna Laifenfeld, founded Genetika+ in 2018.

The product is still undergoing R&D and has clinical sites in Israel and in Philadelphia, and is expanding to more sites across America. It recently won €17.5 million of grant funding, the maximum possible grant, from the European Commission’s Innovation Council Accelerator for high potential start-ups. Genetika+’s proposal was selected from over 1,000 applicants.

Genetika+ plans to launch commercially in the US and in Israel by the end of 2023.