Modern life can be a headache. But there were evidently plenty of headaches back in the first century CE, when Aretaeus of Cappadocia, one of the most celebrated ancient Greek physicians, described three types of the malady.
Modern classification systems now characterize over two hundred varieties. Migraines are perceived as among the worst “primary” type—those unrelated to more systemic problems, like meningitis—which routinely cause vomiting and extreme sensitivity to lights, sounds, and smells. They can last upwards of 72 hours, robbing sufferers of energy, productivity, and joie de vivre.
Migraines affect about 11% of Americans, exacting a whopping $13 billion per year in medical costs and another $17 billion in lost work time.
While current drugs are sometimes effective for occasional migraines, these medications have limited usefulness for the millions who endure ten, fifteen, or more a month. These patients come to accept their headaches as an inescapable burden and resign themselves to waiting out the pain and nausea in a darkened bedroom.
Seeking to provide relief, clinicians sometimes prescribe drugs developed for other diseases, including blood pressure, anti-seizure, and anti-depressant medications. But these can cause insomnia, weight gain, agitation, sexual dysfunction, and still prove ultimately ineffective.
Physician-scientists like Richard Kraig, MD, PhD, Director of the University of Chicago Medicine’s Migraine Headache Clinic, are studying the underlying neurophysiological mechanisms to identify new treatment strategies. They have found that oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain seem to invoke the headaches in those with a familial tendency to the disease, setting up a vicious cycle: stress leads to migraine leads to increased stress leads to more pain.
One way to reduce oxidative stress is mental and physical stimulation, a strategy hard to embrace in the midst of unrelenting misery. Kraig has been using rodent models to find new ways to intervene. He and his team discovered that insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), delivered as a nasal spray, is remarkably effective in reducing oxidative stress in the brain. Even better, they realized that IGF-1 dosing over a period of days had a cumulative effect that was multiplicative rather than additive—the more days the mice received the drug, the increasingly dramatic their response.
If IGF-1 is similarly effective in humans, it could change millions of lives. With the help of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago, Kraig and colleagues have now founded Seurat Therapeutics, Inc, (see below), a company that will develop the intranasal drug, support clinical trials of safety and effectiveness, and provide a platform for commercialization.
The great news is that IGF-1 has been used for years to treat children with hereditary and other growth problems. While that does not assure the drug can be safely administered as a nasal spray, it is a good indication this may be the case. The team has secured a patent for nasal delivery of IGF-1 that provides protection until at least 2032.
The advisory committee at the University of Chicago Innovation Fund finals agreed this month that, among the five finalists, Seurat was one of two on the verge of commercial success. They decided to invest up to $250,000 in the startup. That same day, University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer announced that the University would be investing up to $25 million of its own endowment in Polsky-backed companies, a major vote of confidence in the many new ventures under development at the Polsky Center. Together, University of Chicago researchers and business experts are creating economic engines in Chicago that can do good as they are doing well.
Seurat Therapeutics, Inc.: The Migraine Company
- Yuan Zhang, PhD’16, SM’14, AB’09 is President and CEO of the company.
- Kraig, founder and William D. Mabie Professor in the Neurosciences, continues as chief scientific officer.
- Martin Sanders, MD’79, co-founder of the company with Kraig, serves as Board Chair.
- Yang Zheng, MBA’18 is an intern with previous startup experience.
- Sharon Lew, MS, with long experience in startups, particularly with Dr. Sanders, is CFO and VP of operations.