Why there is evidence to be hopeful about neuroscience and drug development

We continue to see media reports describing how pharmaceutical companies are cutting or altogether halting investment in neuroscience, thereby eliminating the possibility of innovative treatments for devastating brain disorders such as depression and Alzheimer’s disease. These reports are both right and wrong. Although some pharmaceutical companies have indeed reduced spending in neuroscience, others are not only thriving, but on the cusp of making important new discoveries.

It should be noted that some of the coverage is exaggerated or inaccurate. Certainly, most of it fails to report progress being made in neuroscience or the continued commitment by some pharmaceutical companies to develop innovative and potentially valuable new treatments. The negative view may stem from a report published several years ago by the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology[1]
, which noted that neurologic and psychiatric disorders account for more than one-third of the disease burden in Europe, which is true, and that public and corporate research and development funding is being cut, which is only partially true.

Some pharmaceutical companies have reduced basic science and other discovery platforms in neuroscience. They have chosen to get out of the business for many reasons, but largely because the science is complicated and difficult and because they have chosen to invest resources on other diseases. This occurred despite the fact that unmet needs in neuroscience are as great as those in any other disease area. In fact, in the UK, mental illness is the single largest cause of disability, and the wider costs of mental illness in England are estimated to be about £105.2bn each year[2]

There is a small silver lining, however. This mental health crisis, while discouraging and devastating for patients and their families, can help drive the field of neuroscience forward. This is because the continuing mental health crisis, combined with fewer pharmaceutical companies working on developing novel treatments, has clearly pointed out that “business as usual”, whereby industry, government, academia, independent research organisations, and advocacy groups all continue to work in isolation, simply will not bring about major breakthroughs. Thus, the financial pressures, in combination with the human need, have actually helped to focus attention on the vital importance of continuing brain research in all of its forms. The short-term goal is to understand better these devastating diseases and find new approaches to treatment and cure. The long-term goal — now within reach — is to get new treatments and cures into the hands of those who need them most.

Seminal advances have occurred in genomics, biomarkers, and non-invasive tools for imaging the brain. We now have an impressive — although still rapidly growing — suite of technologies to study the structure and function of large-scale neural circuitry with precision. For instance, a Nature Neuroscience article[3]
noted that ongoing genome-wide association studies can potentially lead to hundreds of new findings for common genetic variants across nine psychiatric disorders. The same paper said that “there are 183 clinical trials [in psychiatry] under way or registered, showing considerable investment in the field”.

Janssen is aiming to move from a ‘diagnose-and-treat’ approach to a more flexible and effective ‘predict-and-preempt’ paradigm. New tools, new ideas, and new collaborations make it the ideal time to study brain illness. Cutting edge technologies are revolutionising the way we think about, study, and approach the development of novel treatments in neuroscience. We are conducting late-stage clinical development programmes exploring a promising investigational medicine for depression, which is thought to work differently from any currently approved therapies. We are also studying new approaches to treating Alzheimer’s disease. We are involved in collaborative models of research that bring together rich and varied sources of data gathered from diverse partners and investors in order to create computational models of disease or “virtual patients”, in order to explore all possible avenues leading to the next great discovery or approach to treatment.

There are many other companies that also remain committed to developing life-saving, much-needed therapeutics in neuroscience. There needs to be more investment from both public and private sectors. Also, concerns about pharmaceutical companies withdrawing from this research area are well founded. But this does not mean the world has abandoned neuroscience, nor does it mean that promising therapeutics are not currently being developed.

The pharmaceutical industry will continue to invest in neuroscience in order to clarify our understanding of the brain and of neuropsychiatric illnesses, and, ultimately, develop more effective and urgently needed treatments. This work is more than research or a financial goal; this work is an investment in humanity.

Husseini K Manji

Global head, neuroscience

Janssen Research and Development


[1] Wittchen H, Riedel O.Depression and anxiety in Parkinson’s disease: under-diagnosed and undertreated. European Neuropharmacology 2011;21 Suppl 3:S220–S221. doi : 10.1016/S0924-977X(11)70328- 5

[2] Sahakian BJ. What do experts think we should do to achieve brain health? Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 2014. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.04.002

[3] Breen G, Li Q, Roth BL et al. Translating genome-wide association findings into new therapeutics for psychiatry. Nature Neuroscience 2016;19(11):1392–1396. doi: 10.1038/nn.4411

Last updated
Clinical Pharmacist, CP, March 2017, Vol 9, No 3;9(3):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2017.20202273

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