Protecting our brains and minds
Our brains are responsible for much of what we value about ourselves: our creativity, our personalities, our intelligence, our abilities to connect and empathize with others. Because our brains are so crucial in shaping our sense of self, neurological diseases and mental-health disorders, which affect more than 1 billion people globally, are especially devastating. Neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s, ALS, and Parkinson’s, as well as mental-health disorders like depression and anxiety can feel like they change the core of who we are.
With this recognition in mind, we updated our 10 Leaps last year to include Leap 05 / Protect brain and mind, which puts a special focus on mental health, neurodevelopmental, and neurodegenerative diseases. As I’ve written previously, one of our first Leaps joint ventures, BlueRock Therapeutics, is bringing revolutionary cell and gene therapies to the treatment of conditions like Parkinson’s disease, and the company’s first therapy is currently in Phase 1 trials in the US and Canada. These encouraging developments, together with our increasing appreciation of the crucial importance of mental health and the growing prevalence of neurodegenerative diseases in aging populations, have inspired a new resolve to find innovative solutions.
We’ve invested in two ventures that bring varied, creative approaches to addressing Leap 05. The first is Bloom Science, bringing a bold new perspective to neurological disorders by harnessing the potential of the gut-immune-brain axis. Our guts are home to trillions of microbes, and these microbes carry out metabolic functions and chemical signaling that affect digestion, immunity, and inflammation. Growing evidence suggests that interactions between gut microbes and the human immune system can affect cognition and emotion, including social and anxiety-like behaviors, and understanding these complex, multidirectional interactions can open new therapeutic avenues for neurological disorders like epilepsy and ALS, that often have few treatment options.
Bloom’s microbiome-based therapies build on our understanding of the gut-immune-brain axis to develop targeted interventions based on known clinical treatments. For instance, one of its lead drug candidates in development uses proprietary microbes to treat drug-resistant epilepsies in a targeted, more efficient manner by mimicking the effects of a ketogenic diet. By recognizing and harnessing the vast biochemical potential of the microbial world, Bloom joins Leaps investments like Andes Ag and Joyn Bio, which are engineering microbes to fulfill crucial agricultural functions like nitrogen fixation. All of these diverse portfolio companies are testament to the power of the convergent technologies to bring biological solutions to the world’s biggest problems.
Our new investment in digital-health company Woebot Health takes a strikingly different approach to Leap 05 and represents our first investment in technologies to improve mental health. The social isolation and societal upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a second pandemic of mental-health disorders. Symptoms of depression and anxiety are on the rise, and an estimated 280 million people suffer from depression worldwide. Despite this acute and growing need, the average wait to see a mental-health professional is 2 to 3 months even in wealthy countries, and in low- and middle-income countries, an estimated 85% of people suffering from mental health disorders remain untreated. Innovations that improve access to quality care are of urgent importance.
Woebot Health is combining AI with clinically proven therapeutic approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy to offer Woebot, a chatbot that acts as a 24/7 support system and mental-health ally, interfacing with patients whenever and wherever they need support. Woebot listens, learns, and offers therapeutic tools in an engaging, personalized way, supporting but not replacing the role of a traditional therapist to offer more continuous care to patients in need. Woebot Health joins other Leaps investments like Ada Health and Huma that are pushing the frontiers of digital health, using AI and big data to lower barriers to healthcare access and improve patient outcomes. These investments form the backbone of Leap 10 / Transform health with data, which aims to leverage AI and big data towards a goal of Health for All.
I’m humbled and excited to collaborate with the pioneering scientists at Bloom and Woebot Health to transform the potential of their platforms into a reality. There is no question that neurological disorders and mental-health diseases remain some of the most daunting challenges for patients, caregivers, and researchers alike. I am hopeful that we can create a world with better, stronger support for the brains and minds that help make us who we are.