Men's Health

Head Case

JAKE VANLANDINGHAM, Ph.D., a 45-year-old neuroscientist who has spent nearly a decade trying to develop a drug that he believes can heal concussions, works out of his car. Or he sits at the kitchen table of the house he rents in a subdivision in Tallahassee, Florida. “We’re virtual,” he likes to say of his eight-employee company, Prevacus. In 2018, he says, he sold his family home to keep his start-up alive. He’d already raised and spent millions on the toxicology tests, patent applications, attorney fees, and company overhead required to take his drug into Phase 1 human clinical trials, a vital stage on the arduous journey toward FDA approval.

When I visited him in July, he steered us around Tallahassee’s live-oak-lined roads in his Hyundai SUV and explained his drug between phone calls from potential investors. When he spoke, the words emerged in an almost theatrical drawl. Born and raised in the Florida Panhandle, the scion of a clan of vegetable growers with more than a thousand acres under cultivation, VanLandingham is lean and tall, with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. He was dressed in a polo shirt, jeans, and a pair of flip-flops, the uniform of the Florida dad. (He is the father of four.)

VanLandingham was in good spirits. The last chunk of a promised grant would be coming through at any moment, he said. With that money, he could at last launch Phase 1 safety trials, at a research clinic in Adelaide, Australia. (Many small U.S. biotechs go to Australia for Phase 1 because it’s cheaper there.) If that were to happen, his would be the first new drug specifically targeting concussions ever to be tested in humans.

Raising funds has been difficult, he said, partly because of the confounding nature of concussion itself. Every person experiences concussion differently. Between 10 and 15 percent of people who suffer just a single concussion will go on to have cognitive problems for more than a year. No one knows why. Called post-concussion syndrome, or PCS, it can involve trouble with concentration, attention, memory, and judgment. Headache, dizziness, lack of balance, blurry vision. Sleep abnormalities, anxiety, panic attacks, depression. Children are more vulnerable to concussions than adults, and it takes longer for them to recover. As many as 1.9 million children suffer sports-related concussions in the U.S. each year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics—up to 285,000 of them could have symptoms that last longer than 12 months. About 2.8 million people overall are diagnosed with a concussion annually, a few of them famously—in the NFL, the NHL, or even MLS—most anonymously. A fraction of those will experience concussion symptoms for the rest of their lives. Out there is the grandfather

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