This week’s Science has a thought-provoking article charting how several of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies have canned their development of psychiatric drugs, citing the medications as unlikely to be profitable given the difficulties in understanding the neurobiology of mental illness.
On 4 February, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced that it planned to pull the plug on drug discovery in some areas of neuroscience, including pain and depression. A few weeks later, news came that AstraZeneca was closing research facilities in the United States and Europe and ceasing drug-discovery work in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety.
These cutbacks by two of the top players in drug development for disorders of the central nervous system have raised concerns that the pharmaceutical industry is pulling out, or at least pulling back, in this area. In direct response to the cuts at GSK and AstraZeneca, the Institute of Medicine Forum on Neuroscience and Nervous System Disorders organized a meeting in late June that brought together leaders from government, academia, and private foundations to take stock.
But the biggest problem, researchers say, is that there is almost nothing in the pipeline that gives any hope for a transformation in the treatment of mental illness. That’s worrying, they say, because the need for better treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders is vast. Hundreds of millions of people are afflicted worldwide. Yet for some common disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease, no truly effective treatments exist; for others, like depression, the existing drugs have limited efficacy and substantial side effects.
Sadly, the full article is locked behind a paywall (news kills people) but the author, science journalist Greg Miller, discusses the topic in the freely available Science podcast which covers the same ground.
One theme to consistently emerge is how, for years, Big Pharma has been chasing easy profits by making slightly tweaked versions of existing drugs rather than investing in research aimed at developing genuinely new treatments. It seems this short-term-ism is starting to run out of steam.
By the way, the Science podcast piece on Big Pharma is followed by coverage of an innovative new study on dopamine and impulsivity so well worth a listen.