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High Hopes for Ketamine Depression Treatments

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Ketamine -- a drug used in anesthesia -- is making a lot of patients happy with its ability to treat depression, although it hasn't been approved by the Food Drug and Administration for that use.

Three recent positive studies, including a small one last week, should spur more research into ketamine and boost the already fast-growing, off-label infusion business.

Clubgoers have long used the street version, dubbed Special K, and veterinarians have used it as an anesthetic for decades. But does a recreational drug and horse tranquilizer really have potential as an effective treatment for one of the toughest, and most common, psychiatric illnesses out there? Recent history says possibly.

In fact, the FDA is encouraging development of this medication, granting fast-track status for some ketamine-like drug candidates. And desperate, treatment-resistant patients are lining up for one-hour infusions in doctors' offices all over the country.

Just how does ketamine work for depression? The theory is that it may block the effects of the neurotransmitter glutamate, on N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors, in the brain, somehow triggering intracellular pathways to create more synaptic connections. Restoring these connections may ease depression. It is as good a theory as any; scientists don't really fully understand how any antidepressants work.

Drug companies are making a play, but their versions of ketamine are years away from the clinic and not without recent failure. AstraZeneca (AZN) had an NMDA channel blocker in phase II trials that was pulled after disappointing results.

Development is speeding up, however. Last month, the FDA gave Naurex, a small drug-development company, fast-track status for its ketamine-like drug, an infusion in Phase II trials.

Last November, Cerecor, another small privately held biopharmaceutical company, also got fast-track status from the FDA for its depression treatment in Phase II trials.

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