Research into medications
to treat mental health disorders, which affect almost a quarter of the US
population, has slowed as major pharmaceutical companies cut back investment in
this area, psychiatrists say.
"The companies seem to
have concluded that developing new psychiatric drugs is too risky and too
expensive," said Richard Friedman, professor of clinical psychiatry at
Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.
The pullback came after a
series of failures in clinical trials that evaluated anti-depressants and
anti-psychotic medications, he said.
In one recent case, a new
treatment for schizophrenia from US drug maker Eli Lilly (Ly2140023) was
scrapped after it failed in a phase 3 clinical trial, leaving the company with
a huge loss on the millions it had already invested.
It's been nearly a decade
since the last big blockbuster drug – Eli Lilly's anti-depressant Cymbalta, in
2004 – hit the market, and that was more than a decade after the previous big
seller, Wyeth's anti-depressant Effexor, according to Dr. Friedman.
Declining in spending
Friedman said the decline
in spending was apparent at the 2011 conference of the American Society for
Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, where just 13 of the 300 presentations
were related to pharmaceutical interventions and none involved a new psychiatric
"There is very little
in the pipeline," said Friedman. "Eventually you have to rely on what
is available and what is available is essentially what we call 'me-too drugs'.
"They basically share
the same mode of action as the older drugs," he said, noting that some go
back as far as the 1950s, although the newer ones may be more effective and have
fewer side effects.
According to Steven Paul,
professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, the drop in
research and development investment has been "very significant".
"It has to be at least
half of what has been invested 10 to 15 years ago," Paul, who has
previously held senior research positions at Eli Lilly and the National
Institutes of Health, told AFP.
Laboratories often prefer
to invest in cancer, heart disease and diabetes, for which biological targets
are well-defined and easier to study, Friedman said.
Given that it takes about a
billion dollars to develop a new drug, he added, many companies view that as a
Treating the brain brings
unique challenges. said Paul Summer grad, chairman of the department of
psychiatry and medicine at Tufts University school of medicine in Boston.
"The brain is
extremely complicated to work on," he told AFP.
"is generally more likely to be a disorder of both neurochemistry and
circuits, as well as complicated gene and environmental interactions," he
"It is harder from a
scientific standpoint to study these disorders."
Summer grad said new
techniques in neuroscience have emerged in recent decades that allow for a
better genetic understanding of psychiatric disease, accompanied by new imaging
advances that show a range of abnormalities in the brain.
But despite these strides,
these techniques remain "relatively new... so I think it's a challenge for
the pharmaceutical industry. That why they have in part backed away from the
work of taking care of those illnesses."
AFP asked five major
pharmaceutical companies for comment on this story, including Merck, Pfizer,
Bristol-Myers Squibb, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline.
Dearth of progress
"As we are doing very
little in this area, we respectfully decline to participate. Merck is now
focusing on Alzheimer's Disease," said Caroline Lappetito, a spokeswoman
Thomas Insel, the director
of the National Institute of Mental Health, has blogged about the dearth of
progress in mental health innovation.
companies are making business decisions to shift away from central nervous
system targets, the scientific opportunities for progress have never been
better," he wrote in 2010.
He also expressed dismay
that his institute's annual budget at $1.4 billion was not enough to pick up
the slack from drug firms.
For Liza Gold, a professor
of clinical psychiatry at Georgetown University, the lack of new medication is
a big problem.
"It's a very difficult
thing to say somebody, 'We don't have anything else; this is what we
got,'" she told AFP.
Experts still have hope,
however, based on a project launched this year by president Barack Obama to
unravel the mysteries of the brain, which Friedman said "has definitely
got huge promise".
The Brain Research Through
Advancing Innovative Neuro-technologies program sets aside $100 million in
investment in its first year by a host of federal agencies.