TruGenomix co-founders hope to prevent severe PTSD

Sanford Health invests money and lab services in promising partnership

A portrait of Charles Cathlin and Tshaka Cunningham in a TruGenomix lab

The two co-founders behind TruGenomix have a vision for helping veterans and others who might be prone to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A new partnership with Sanford Health will help them work toward this vision.

Charles Cathlin serves as chief executive officer, and Tshaka Cunningham, Ph.D., is chief scientific officer of their small, veteran-owned precision behavioral health company based in Maryland.

TruGenomix has developed a genomic test, TruGen-1, that identifies an individual’s risk level for developing PTSD if that person has experienced a trauma. Sanford Health recently announced an $800,000 investment in the company. The use of Sanford Imagenetics’ lab for sequencing and validating 2,000 samples of TruGenomix’s blood test also is included in the partnership. Samples came from military members, World Trade Center first responders, sexual assault survivors and Holocaust survivors and descendants.

Last year, former Veterans Administration leader Dr. David Shulkin, a strategic advisor to Sanford Health, made the introduction of the two companies. Since then, they have worked to establish a relationship that enthuses the TruGenomix co-founders.

“It’s very important work we’re doing, and we’re really excited to be doing it in partnership with Sanford’s Imagenetics lab,” Dr. Cunningham said.

Rochelle Odenbrett, senior executive director of Sanford Imagenetics and Sanford Laboratories, echoes the sentiment.

“We are very excited for this partnership with TruGenomix,” she said. “It offers our Imagenetics Lab an opportunity to expand our testing capabilities and serve an important role in the development of a genetic marker for PTSD.  In collaboration with Trugenomix, we hope that we can establish this test clinically to aid in the diagnosis and treatment that will benefit those at highest risk for PTSD.”

Science of Trugenomix test

Clinical trials with VA patients will follow after the samples are sequenced, possibly this fall. TruGenomix’s test will be administered to patients expressing symptoms of PTSD. The patients will be followed over time to see how well the tests can predict worsening symptoms or outcomes.

The blood test looks at 755 genes selected based on studies showing that they may be involved with PTSD, bipolar disorder, major depression and anxiety disorder. The test explores whether there’s a high or low level of those genes expressed in a cell, which may correlate to beginning disease traits. The test also looks at the effect of gene mutations, or variants, on gene expression levels.

“We’ve got a whole slate of biomarkers in our panel that can go in different directions, and it creates a profile,” Dr. Cunningham said — gene expression biomarker profiles.

He said they want to get a better idea of the gene expression of people who have severe versions of disease.

Potential to help people

Eventually, Dr. Cunningham and Cathlin hope their test could identify early the vulnerable people in occupations at high risk for PTSD or other behavioral health disorders — from the military to first responders to health care workers.

“You want to identify and provide resources to people early on vs. waiting until they’re actually suffering,” Cathlin said. Early intervention would be far preferable to an eventual reliance on coping mechanisms of alcohol or substance use, or the possibility of suicide.

As they methodically go through the validation and clinical trial steps, Cathlin and Dr. Cunningham see plenty of potential in their TruGen-1 test to diagnose patients and help treat them in the future.

They value partnerships like the one with Sanford and relationships with organizations such as the VA. Those help their small company offer a huge change in how people who undergo trauma cope afterward.

“Current diagnosis and treatment methods don’t have the right tools. … There aren’t even direct medicines; they’re prescribing drugs for depression to treat post-traumatic stress disorder,” Dr. Cunningham said. “We’ve got a long way to go in this field, and I’m very excited to be part of the exciting research that’s happening now.”

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Posted In Company News, Genetics, Innovations, Research, Veterans

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