Improving the antiquated, inadequate “Gold Standard” for PTSD diagnosis and treatment
Charles Cathlin wanted to be a pilot. With a sister serving in the U.S. Air Force and a predisposition for science and technology, Colorado Springs was calling. But…
“It seemed like everyone knew I was color blind except me,” he said.
Nevertheless, Charles served six years in the Air Force as a bioenvironmental engineer working to mitigate or eliminate environmental hazards in industrial arenas like aircraft maintenance facilities. After deployments to Albania, Mozambique and the Middle East, Charles joined the United States Public Health Service Corps’ division on emergency response and preparedness in August 2001. His department was responsible for the medical response to the terror attacks on New York and Virginia the very next month.
“We knew how to protect first responders and uniformed service members from the myriad environmental hazards they faced in response to the events of September 2001,” Charles said. “But there was no protection at all from the mental health impacts responders inevitably faced.”
In 2016, he learned of pioneering PTSD biomarkers and genomics research conducted by Dr. Rachel Yehuda at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in conjunction with Dr. Florian Holsboer at the Max Planck Institute.
An aging, inadequate “Gold Standard” for PTSD diagnosis
The current gold standard for PTSD diagnosis is a self-reporting survey, Charles stated in his winning pitch to the Southeast Life Sciences 2021 SE Color panel. Bias, stigma and the variety of symptoms are just three challenges to diagnosing PTSD. Currently, there are 22 veteran suicides daily.
“The current system lets people fall off the cliff while the ambulance waits at the bottom,” Charles said. “We’re building guardrails to intervene ahead of the tragic outcomes that come from undiagnosed, untreated behavioral health disorders.”
Charles co-founded Maryland-based Polaris Genomics to identify earlier and more effectively diagnose and treat mental health disorders. Polaris licensed the PTSD biomarker patent from Mt. Sinai and expanded its capability from 3 genes to more than 1,000 with correlating mental health conditions. The team then built the TruNorth Platform, a bioinformatics engine to ingest genomic information, analyze it and apply AI for predictive modeling and reporting for clinical use.
Editor’s note: At the end of his service with USPHS, Charles spent 10 years at the FDA including serving as the Chief of Neurology and Radiology Devices.
The frontier of precision based behavioral health
Polaris is a veteran-owned business that remains committed to its founding mission of improving the lives of U.S. military service members and veterans living with behavioral health conditions such as PTSD. Over the last 18 months, an evolving behavioral health landscape amid the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the urgency for advances in diagnostics and treatment for many more populations. Answering a calling to serve, Polaris officially launches with an expanded mission addressing:
- Veterans and active-duty US military service members,
- First responders, frontline workers, and individuals in high-risk occupations, and
- Trauma-exposed communities at large.
Building on research into the biological basis of PTSD and other neuropsychiatric conditions, the team at Polaris is working to develop the frontier of precision behavioral health with the first objective and evidence-based diagnostics and therapeutics.
“Experiencing PTSD is not exclusive to veterans,” Charles said. “Just look at the hand that healthcare workers and first responders have been dealt in dealing with Covid-19 and the mental health repercussions they will continue to face in the foreseeable future.”
As of this publication date, Polaris is completing validation on a clinical product in partnership with Sanford Health, while laying out a Series A funding strategy for an early 2022 push.
“We have goals set for science and product development, finance fundraising, team building, marketing and business development,” Charles said. “We want to form a company with the right people. Failing to do so can cause a lot of chaos with the wrong people in roles necessary to move the company forward. We spend a great deal of time on team building and development because we know how important it is to get it right.”
“Scientifically, unlike cancer, you can’t see or biopsy within mental health conditions. We’re doing some of the work needed to identify the biological underpinnings of those conditions with validation and research partners at Sanford Health and Defense Research and Development Canada.”
In addition to the fundraising plan mentioned previously, Polaris’s marketing and business development efforts center around gathering as much input from their network, including KOLs, as possible to position the technology for successful commercialization.
Finding the right, ripe markets for early commercialization, while building a path to providers
“Commercialization is a top area of focus at the moment,” Charles said. “We are talking to potential customers for feedback and input. There are some interesting therapeutic products being developed by the pharmaceutical companies. But identifying patients for clinical trials is proving difficult for them. Adding a genomic component to the PTSD diagnosis pathway could provide a significant boost for their recruitment efforts.”
“The provider community in the PTSD arena will be slower to adopt this technology,” Charles said. “Shifting from self-reported surveys, observation and conversation to utilization of genomic, bioinformatic data and AI will be a heavy lift in the clinical community. The research market and potential pharmaceutical market will support our work while we continue to educate clinicians.”
We applaud Charles and his team’s noble, novel approach to an unmet need that may well save thousands of lives and improve the lives of millions more that suffer PTSD. From their own story, “The team has garnered numerous awards, ranks, titles, and accomplishments, ranging from captain to engineer, Purple Heart recipient to medical doctor, virologist and immunologist, 9/11 responder to Iraq War veteran, and PhD to Homeland Security Public Health Officer amid the threats of SARS and anthrax.”
Watch Charles’s winning pitch here.
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