> Big Pharma leaves neuroscience in the dust.

Since the beginning of this year two leading drugs companies GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZenca have all but completely pulled funding for research and development of meds for neurological disorders. Before I go into detail, it’s worth noting the annual marketing budget of the industry is $57.5 billion. To put that in to context, the gulf sea oil disaster this summer only cost $8 Billion. That’s even more money spent on advertising than the highest value note in Zimbabwe could buy, well perhaps that’s not saying much. One single company, Forest, spent $36 million on lunches for doctors in to create “an extended amount of selling time for representatives”, in one year, for one single drug, the anti-depressant Leraxo.

Caption: Formerly the highest value Zimbabwean dollar bill, coincidentally also the annual marketing expenditure of Big Pharma

On 4th February GSK announced it was pulling out of research into Pain, Depression and Anxiety Disorders. Since then AstraZeneca has announced it has followed suit also adding Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder to the list of neurological conditions being abandoned. The justification for this was primarily economic despite this, the companies continue to spend billions in advertising the high priced, often addictive and sometimes deadly products already on the market that have been proven to barely provide any benefits at all in many cases. This will come as a shock to anyone who has studied psychology as you’ll know that depression; anxiety disorders and schizophrenia take up almost the whole of any introductory psychology text book. As those textbooks would tell you, the current meds are generally not very effective and involve substantial side effects. Worse still, for dozens of neurological conditions, current meds don’t yet exist that provide real benefits (e.g. for conditions such as Alzheimers and ALS). Research in to more promising compounds just isn’t as profitable as selling the ones developed decades ago.

 As a result of these announcements, the Institute of Medicine has called a meeting with government leaders and academics globally to assess the problem, it stated that…

“the biggest problem… is that when you look at what companies are doing for psychiatric drug treatment … there are very few new molecular entities, very few novel ideas and almost nothing that gives hope for a transformation in the treatment of mental illness”.

So the facts:

•           As of July there are 313 drugs for mental disorders in the pipeline

•           Most of these are slightly tweaked versions of old compounds, much in the same way that underground pharma tweaks newly banned chemicals to make legal variants. Interestingly the government has responded to the work done by underground pharma by making whole classes of compounds such as Cathinones actually illegal.)

•           A large proportion of of these compounds are actually already approved and are just being resubmitted for more uses (as off label use is banned by the FDA)

•           Lots of these are first generation a-typical antipsychotics being resubmitted for anxiety and depression even though they are well known for their extensive side effects, far from ideal for the depressed.

So what’s the value of spending millions on resubmissions for off-label uses? This would allow the companies to extend the patents that are about to expire and get another 10 years of sales for the same old compounds, except in a shiny new packet with a slightly different name. They will then proceed to spend the billions they could have spent on discovery on advertising *insert neuro-funking-catchy-sounding-name-here* to consumers in America (as this is illegal in the Europe) and wining and dining the buyers of surgeries and hospitals globally. This is all simply because it’s a lot less financially risky than doing real R&D.

In reality only 8% of CNS drugs make it to market and most that crash do so in the final stages of R&D, making it a very high risk to start with. Big Pharma seems to have decided that the odds on discovering new meds in the CNS area just aren’t worth the risk. The worst bit: the government has just decided to cut science funding by 25%, great job Dave. On the plus side, this is great news for psychologists; your patients won’t be deserting you any time soon!

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