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Mental Health Champions: Why & How Dr. Emer Leahy of PsychoGenics Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness

By Yitzi Weiner · Aug. 14, 2022 · Medium

Delegate and accept imperfection — I find myself getting anxious when I take on too much and realize that I must delegate better and learn to let go more. While this this does not always come easily, letting go does feel liberating

As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Emer Leahy, CEO, PsychoGenics.

Dr. Emer Leahy, the President and CEO of PsychoGenics, is leading the revival of mental health drug discovery. Despite pharma giants cutting research on psychiatric medicine by 70% in the past decades, Dr. Leahy’s preclinical CNS service company has an innovative approach to drug discovery resulting in several novel treatments transforming the lives of patients suffering from disabling neuropsychiatric disorders and rare orphan disorders (Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autism spectrum disorders, psychosis and schizophrenia, etc.) The demand for mental health treatments continues to increase, but the complexity to mental health clinical trials has always been a major hurdle. Pioneering a renaissance of new “blockbuster” psychiatric drugs, Dr. Leahy’s 30 years experience in drug discovery and clinical development are helping companies discover the next generation of mental health treatments and more precise neuroscience research.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in an upper-middle class home and was the eldest of two children. We traveled a lot, and my early childhood was spent in East Africa. Soon after, we moved to Ireland where I completed most of my education and went on to get my Ph.D. On the surface, it appeared as though we lived a charmed life, and while we did have many good times, my mother suffered from crippling depression that kept her in bed for weeks at a time. She contemplated and even attempted suicide.

Her depression marred much of my childhood and adolescence. School was an escape; weekends were met with trepidation and many summers were spent away from home with my grandmother. When I was older, I worked and traveled a lot. My mother’s mood had a profound impact on the family and, eventually, my parents separated.

As I got older, I buried myself in my studies and worked night and day to get my Ph.D. in just under three years. My Ph.D. is in neuropharmacology, a field that I have been passionate about, because I understood the devastating impact of mental illness not only on the person who is suffering but on the family unit.

I rarely speak about my childhood, as it feels disloyal to a woman who did her best to overcome her demons and raise my brother and me. She and my father instilled in us the importance of education and hard work and, most importantly, how to think, not what to think — lessons thatI try to pass on to my kids today.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?

I am extremely fortunate to work in the field of mental health and lead an organization of exceptional scientists who are working to find novel and improved treatments for devastating conditions, such as schizophrenia and depression. Our approach to drug discovery is unique, specifically because we employ artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled platforms to predict the therapeutic application for novel compounds based on how they alter the behavior of mice.

This is a phenotypic approach as opposed to the target-driven approach to drug discovery. The target-based approach can be effective when the disorder has a single, well-understood genetic cause. However, psychiatric, and neurodegenerative disorders, such as depression, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease, often involve many susceptibility genes, epigenetics and environmental factors. Even in 2022, these conditions remain far from understood.

We have employed our AI-enabled phenotypic drug discovery platforms in shared-risk partnerships with major pharmaceutical companies, including Sunovion, Roche and Karuna, resulting in the discovery of several novel compounds now in clinical trials, such as ulotaront, a novel treatment for schizophrenia with an improved safety profile in Phase 3, discovered in partnership with Sunovion. We are also working on numerous putative treatments on our own using our novel compound library and AI platforms which, together, represent our discovery engine that allows us to initiate many new programs.

While drug development takes several years, we are hopeful that we will deliver many novel and improved treatments for the millions of patients who suffer from severely debilitating mental illnesses, starting with ulotaront for schizophrenia.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I have always had an interest in understanding the complexity of the brain — i.e., what makes it work and, more importantly, what makes some of us vulnerable to debilitating mental illnesses while others are resilient. Of course, I had seen firsthand the impact that depression can have on a family.

As a child, I had also witnessed the emergence of schizophrenia in two of my cousins during the prime of their lives and wondered if that could happen to my brother or me as we entered late adolescence. I saw how these once-vibrant teenagers withdrew into themselves with occasional outbursts of madness and gradually became more sedated and obese, as the drugs that they took kept them in a vegetative state. It was crystal clear that we needed, and still need, better treatments.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

While there was no real “aha moment,” I think that I have understood all of my life the profound need to make an impact in this space. For this reason, I am so grateful to those along the way who have helped me, especially Dr. Henry Jarecki, our chairman who funded PsychoGenics. More than that, he has been a business partner and mentor every step of this 22-year journey. Together, we have built a world-class team of scientists who are focused on finding better treatments.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Over the course of 22 years at PsychoGenics, we have experienced many ups and downs. In the early 2000s, shortly after we developed our first AI-enabled platform, we partnered with many companies to help find the next generation of CNS drugs.

However, in the late 2000s, as the pharma industry faced its patent cliff, CNS fell out of favor, and several partners exited the space. Sunovion was a company that remained committed to the field and continued to work with us to take compounds that we had discovered using our platform into the clinic. Sunovion has taken a total of four compounds discovered using our platform into clinical trials for treatment-resistant depression, bipolar disorder, agitation in Alzheimer’s disease and the most advanced compound, known as ulotaront, for schizophrenia.

We initiated the work with Sunovion to find better treatment options for schizophrenia. Currently available antipsychotic treatments have serious side effects and, as a result, patients don’t take them. These treatments also fail to address many of the debilitating symptoms of schizophrenia, specifically the apathy and social withdrawal that are well-known as negative symptoms.

We had predicted that ulotaront would have a better safety profile, with broad antipsychotic effects. More specifically, we thought that it would have effects on schizophrenia’s negative symptoms. When the Phase 2 results came out, we were elated. –

Not only did the compound reduce the total symptoms of schizophrenia, but it also had profound effects on negative symptoms with a safety profile similar to the placebo. Our preclinical predictions were correct and ulotaront, now in Phase 3, offers hope to 24 million people (and their families) who suffer from one of the most devastating conditions.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

There were a lot of people who helped me along the way. Of course, my parents encouraged me every step of the way, and my Ph.D. advisor Ciaran Regan was an incredible mentor who taught me to overcome challenges, learn from failure, course-correct and be willing to take risks.

However, it is Dr. Henry Jarecki, chairman and investor in PsychoGenics, who has, for the last 22 years, taught me so much about business. He has challenged me and forced me to justify all of my decisions with data (much like in science). Together, we have shared over two decades of my career solving problems and celebrating accomplishments. I would not be where I am today without Henry’s willingness to take a chance on me.

In 2002, when we were a tiny company of eight people, Henry supported and funded our vision to develop an AI-enabled platform for neuropsychiatric drug discovery which, at the time, was counter to how every other company was approaching drug discovery. 2002 was the peak of the genomic revolution when companies were chasing targets. We thought this target-based approach might work for monogenetic disorders, such as Huntington’s disease, but for poorly understood conditions with environmental triggers, such as depression, it would fail.

Instead, we proposed a phenotypic approach, which is how drugs for mental illness had been discovered heretofore, but our approach was different. We industrialized the phenotypic drug discovery with robotics and AI — an approach that no one was taking. With funding from Henry and the NIH, as well as a collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University, we developed the first AI-based platform for drug discovery. Fast forward 20 years, and the approach has delivered multiple compounds into clinical trials, offering hope for millions of patients.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

Stigma results from a lack of understanding and fear. There are three types of stigma:

  • Societal stigma, where the mentally ill are considered dangerous and unpredictable, leading to fewer opportunities, inhumane treatment and bullying;
  • Self stigma, where mentally ill people feel shame and blame themselves for their condition, leading to low self-worth and a reluctance to seek help; and
  • Institutional stigma, where laws and policies result in negative outcomes. Examples include lower funding for mental illness or access to services, which can exacerbate symptoms, often resulting in homelessness and incarceration.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

For individuals, tell your story, even if it is difficult to do so. The more mental illness remains hidden, the more people think that it must be something to be ashamed of. Highlight inhumane treatment of the mentally ill and hold elected officials accountable for harmful policies and not providing adequate and much-needed services.

For society, we need to stop vilifying the mentally ill and treat them with respect and compassion, as we would for anyone with cancer or a physical disability. Awareness and education will help to destigmatize mental illness, and the media play a critical role here. We also need to highlight the inhumane treatment and abuse of the mentally ill and talk about it as the civil rights issue it is. Our homeless populations and prison systems are filled with non-violent mentally ill people who need our compassion and help to get better access to treatment and support.

Finally, for the government at the federal and state levels, there is much that can be done to support mental health, such as ensuring that mental health services are covered by insurance, providing support services and housing, promoting education, establishing early intervention programs and ensuring that policies don’t undermine future innovation for short-term gain. Government can also ensure that the biopharma industry’s interests are aligned with mental health. For example, regular investments must flow into mental health research so that we don’t wait another 60 years for a breakthrough treatment like ulotaront for schizophrenia.

What are your 5 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

Delegate and accept imperfection — I find myself getting anxious when I take on too much and realize that I must delegate better and learn to let go more. While this this does not always come easily, letting go does feel liberating

Try to stay grounded — I make time every evening to sit with my family and have dinner. We lead such busy lives, and it is easy to get self-absorbed in our work.. Coming together for dinner helps me to think about the world and all of its problems from my husband’s and children’s perspectives.

Make plans — I like to have things to look forward to and enjoy making plans to see friends or go to dinner with my husband.

Stop and smell the roses — I enjoy working in the garden and find it therapeutic and good for stress relief.

Tap into your creative side — I love cooking and preparing meals for family and friends.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

Hidden Valley Road, written by Robert Kolker, is a best seller and a must read. Based on a true story, it is a truly inspiring piece of non-fiction that tells the story of a family of 12 children, six of whom battled schizophrenia. It discusses how the mental health disorder impacted the entire family.

I also encourage people to check out the work of one of the most remarkable advocates for the mentally ill: Judge Steven Leifman. Judge Leifman has transformed the Miami prison system from one where mentally ill were incarcerated and subjected to inhumane treatment to one where non-violent, mentally ill people are given support, shelter, better treatment options and, ultimately, employment opportunities. See Judge Steven Leifman — Ending the Criminalization of Mental Illness — YouTube.

If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

It is better to give, than to receive — that feeling of helping others with no expectations in return is good for your mental health. It can make you feel happier and more fulfilled. It is a privilege to be able to have a positive impact on the lives of others and very satisfying when you witness the impact firsthand.

How can our readers follow you online?

I am on LinkedIn and the work that we do at PsychoGenics can be found on our website at

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!