Lab report: pharmacy professor researches new antidepressant

By Dan Landau

When Ligia Westrich isn’t in the classroom teaching her pharmacy students, she’s working in the lab, doing research for a new antidepressant medication. Vortioxetine hydrobromide — a prescription drug marketed as Brintellix by pharmaceutical companies Lundbeck and Takeda — received approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in September 2013. 

Westrich (at right), an assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences in FDU’s School of Pharmacy, works with the research team at Lundbeck Research that developed the drug. “As a postdoctoral scholar at Lundbeck, and later as a consultant, I developed techniques to study the effect of antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs on circadian rhythms,” she says. A circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that occurs in plants, animals and humans. Biological activities such as mood, hormone production and cell generation are linked to this daily cycle. Westrich’s research focused on how Vortioxetine altered circadian rhythms in rats and mice. 

The drug works by increasing serotonin levels in the brain, essentially correcting a chemical imbalance. This improves mood and behavior while enhancing cognitive functions like decision-making. Currently, Vortioxetine is approved by the FDA to treat Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), or clinical depression, a common mood disorder affecting an estimated 13-16% of the U.S. population. 

There are hundreds of people involved in developing the drug, says Westrich. “It’s a big group and everyone plays a fairly small role in it, so I can’t take too much credit. But it is exciting to be part of the team.

“My favorite part of it is collaborating with scientists from all over the world — at the meetings I go to, there are people from Denmark, France, Canada, and Japan and there is so much knowledge in these meetings,” continues Westrich. 

And Westrich brings that knowledge back to the classroom. “When the drug was approved, I was teaching a neurology course and I updated my slides to include information about the newly-approved antidepressant I had been working on. I spent part of the class period explaining how the drug works,” recounts Westrich.

“As a pharmacy student, you get really excited when new drugs come out while you’re in school and you remember those forever,” says Westrich. “I was in pharmacy school, too, and the drugs that came out while I was in school I remember the best.” 

The knowledge flows from the classroom into the lab as well for Westrich. “What I learn in my research I can bring into the classroom — and the other way around. I learn things in the classes I teach and occasionally I come across information I haven’t seen before about other antidepressants that I relate back to my research work.” 

In the future, Westrich plans to continue doing research on Vortioxetine in conjunction with her teaching. Lundbeck and Takeda are still conducting clinical trials regarding the drug’s efficacy in treating cognitive dysfunction and other indications.  

Feature Story from the FDU Newsroom

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