Via Chemjobber, C&E News have an article on the number of cuts in neuroscience research recently, a subject I have been meaning to blog about. As an aside, I haven’t read the C&E article (no access), but am relying on CJ’s precis. So with my scoop already busted, I soldier on.
The list is a catalog of Big Pharma research efforts shut down after review or merger. It makes for depressing reading for anyone working in the area (or hoping for progress), but it is not really that surprising. Neuroscience is notoriously difficult to get an approved drug out at the end. Expensive failures abound.
Pretty much every seminar I go to in my work area starts with Rimonabant. It was all set to be the next blockbuster, an anti-obesity drug that showed excellent results in clinical trials. It worked as a cannabinoid receptor antagonist, effectively blocking the effect of marijuana on the brain, known for euphoria but also giving you the munchies. It was even approved in Europe, but was subsequently withdrawn when the side effects, which included depression and suicidal thoughts, started to outweigh the benefits.
Another dangerous area of research is in Alzheimer’s Disease, a notoriously difficult condition to treat. Several drug companies have tried and failed, with two candidates making this list of Phase III failures, Lilly’s semagacestat and Pfizer’s Dimebon. A big problem here comes down to the drug companies having an idea of how to treat the disease (targeting an enzyme called gamma-secretase which forms beta-amyloid plaques in the brain) but no proof that it actually works. The human body in general is not completely understood and the subtleties of our biology are breath-taking, but nowhere else is still so mysterious as what goes on inside our own heads. Somehow that makes drug companies reluctant to pour more money into research.
However, despite these setbacks, Merck announced this year that they will file a new drug application for suvorexant, which is a sleep disorder treatment based on antagonism of the orexin receptor in the brain and they look promising as an improvement over GABA inhibitors like Ambien. Even this was not without its problems, as the compound most advanced in clinical trials, Almorexant, was withdrawn.
Despite it being an area where there is a very real need for more medicines, it is easy to see why drug companies are looking elsewhere when the pipelines and research budgets are shrinking.