Owens leading psychiatry department’s new clinical trial research
March 05, 2020
By Leilana McKindra
As a researcher, Dennis Owens, M.D., Ph.D., often works at the far boundaries of what we know, or think we know, about the brain and how it works.
The chance to probe new horizons, especially when it comes to identifying cutting-edge treatments for some of the most mystifying human conditions, was a big reason the Kansas City native left a robust local private practice in psychiatry to join the University of Kansas Medical Center faculty in November of 2018 as the director of clinical research trials in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
"With the conditions we treat, whether it's as a neurosurgeon, neurologist or psychiatrist, we're dealing with the most complex organ, far and away, and because of that, it's one we understand the least well," Owens said. "The frontier is very exciting in terms of what we can accomplish."
Exploring different approaches
The goal of all clinical research, and particularly clinical trials, Owens said, is to discover new approaches to conditions currently without a treatment or, in cases where treatments do exist, developing more effective options.
Owens was recruited to the faculty by William F. Gabrielli, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the KU Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and clinical service chief for The University of Kansas Health System, in large part, not only to bring a portfolio of clinical trials with him, but also to attract more trials, adding an important element to an already thriving department.
"I believe that clinical programs that can go beyond providing excellent patient care by also pushing back the frontiers of quality medicine by exploring options for better ways are the best programs," Gabrielli said. "By enhancing the clinical trials research activity in our department through the efforts of an expert like Dr. Owens, we will show everyone that we mean business in wanting to serve our patients in the best way that we can. We will do this while we enhance the educational experiences of our trainees. It's a win-win situation."
Now more than a year into his appointment, Owens is off to a fast start with several clinical trials expected to begin in the next few months, including one exploring a treatment for pediatric Tourette syndrome, another focused on developing a drug for pediatric schizophrenia and yet other trials focused on new types of antidepressant drugs and a neuromodulating technology called vagus nerve stimulation. Neuromodulating technologies use an electrical current to affect pathological activity in the nervous system.
Owens is especially interested in clinical research centered around unearthing innovative ways of attacking depression. It's the most common condition psychiatrists see, with an estimated 18 to 20 percent of people experiencing at least one episode of major depression in their lifetime.
Moreover, depression often is a troublesome foe. Only about a third of people achieve full remission of symptoms with current medications. Traditional anti-depressants are slow-acting, and probably upwards of 40 percent of patients do not respond well or at all. Some medications fail after working for a period of time.
"We clearly need better medical treatments for depression," Owens said. "There's a lot of interest in developing new antidepressants that work in different ways than our current, traditional medications. The drugs in development might work much more quickly and be effective in individuals who have not responded to traditional antidepressants."
Beyond clinical research, Owens is advancing clinical efforts to add new depression treatments as director of the Comprehensive Depression Assessment and Treatment Center at The University of Kansas Health System. These new treatment methods include the use of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved esketamine nasal spray for treatment-resistant depression as well as the development of a ketamine infusion clinic for the off-label treatment of treatment-resistant depression. Ketamine was approved by the FDA in the 1970s as an anesthetic, but research has uncovered its effectiveness as a rapid-acting anti-depressant.
Owens also is working with Kelly Bisel, D.O., assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Rachel DiTeresi, M.D., clinical assistant professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, to develop an infusion clinic at the health system for brexanolone, a new drug recently approved by the FDA for the treatment of postpartum depression.
Additionally, Owens anticipates studying other neuromodulating technologies such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). ECT uses an electrical current to stimulate circuits deep in the brain believed to be associated with depression, restoring them to more normal function. Similarly, TMS focuses a powerful electromagnet on the left frontal part of the brain thought to be connected to depression, encouraging normal function.
"Patients see The University of Kansas Health System as the place to seek help when they are suffering," said Lauren Lucht, executive director, behavioral and mental health, The University of Kansas Health System. "People coping with difficult-to-treat depression might be able to benefit from the expertise of our team of specialty providers. Making a difference in people's lives is why we exist and what we do every day."
On a mission
A Kansas City product, Owens grew up in the Rosedale area. He went on to earn an undergraduate degree in chemistry at William Jewell College, graduate from medical school at KU and complete his residency at Washington University in St. Louis, where he also obtained a Ph.D. in molecular biology.
This marks Owens' second stint with KU Medical Center. In the 1980s, he was on the faculty and maintained a lab at the Kansas City VA Medical Center before going into private practice, where he primarily remained until about a year ago, when Gabrielli approached him about rejoining the faculty.
"Dr. Owens is a phenomenal guy. I've known him for years. He knows clinical research as well as cutting-edge psychopharmaceutical management," Gabrielli said. "After we started talking, he was very enthusiastic about building the kind of program we wanted to see. That was music to our ears because he was there with the skill set we needed at the time we needed it."
Owens came to KU Medical Center from Psychiatry Associates of Kansas City, where he was in private practice and oversaw clinical trials. While early in his career he focused on basic research, he has been involved in new drug development research since 2003, when he began consulting with the contract research organization, Quintiles, now IQVIA.
The opportunity to pursue his research interests helped Owens make the difficult decision to leave his long-running stint in private practice.
"The missions of both private practice and the university are very concerned about providing the best patient care. But, universities also have a mission for research for the sake of a better understanding of the conditions we treat, what causes them and what are the best treatments," he said. "Universities also have teaching as part of their mission and that's something I'm interested in as well."
Owens also works with residents in the resident clinic and sees a limited number of private patients.