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The brain drain

Published on 05/04/12 at 11:00am
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Concerns about the growing number of companies disinvesting from neuroscience research have been growing in recent years, and the latest blow came from AstraZeneca in February. 

The Anglo-Swedish firm is to cut a further 2,200 job in its R&D operations by 2014, and scale down in its presence in neuroscience. The move is part of a new programme of cuts that will see a total of 7,300 jobs eliminated. Neuroscience will be one of the worst hit, with its in-house investigators cut to just 40 or 50 in Boston in the US, and Cambridge in the UK. 

It says the changes are part of its move towards creating a new ‘virtual’ group which will collaborate with academic and industry partners around the world. 

Martin Mackay, president of Research and Development, AstraZeneca, said: “We’ve made an active choice to stay in neuroscience though we will work very differently to share cost, risk and reward with partners in this especially challenging but important field of medical research. The creation of a virtual neuroscience iMed will make us more agile scientifically and financially - we will be able to collaborate flexibly with the best scientific expertise, wherever it exists in the world.” 

The changes mean two R&D facilities focused on neuroscience will close - Södertälje in Sweden and Montreal in Canada. The location in Sweden is the company’s largest manufacturing site, and the base of the commercial business covering Scandinavian markets, so these functions will continue at Södertälje, but the cuts mean the Montreal facility will be closed down in its entirety. 

ECNP expresses concern

The European College of Neurosycho-pharmacology responded quickly to the news, expressing its ‘deep concern’ at the company’s disinvestment from neuroscience drug research. 

A statement released by the college said: “AstraZeneca’s pull-out is especially disturbing given that it follows a series of similar withdrawals in the last two years by major pharma companies. There is a growing sense that neuroscience in Europe is now facing a severe crisis.” 

Joseph Zohar, professor of psychiatry at Tel Aviv University and ECNP president, says disorders of the brain are Europe’s pre-eminent healthcare concern of the future.

“Medications, properly targeted, are in almost all cases the key to effective treatment. To have a major player like AstraZeneca, with an outstanding history of innovation and development in disorders of the brain, pull-out of the field in this way will inevitably affect Europeans’ access to high quality medications in the future. This is not good news for patients.” 

The fear is that neuroscience could go the way of anti-infectives, a field which is now in crisis because of a lack of investment and unfavourable market conditions. 

Research sponsored by ECNP shows that more than a third of all Europeans experience some form of mental disorder in any given year, at a total cost to the region of some €800 billion per annum. The direct medical costs of these disorders constitute almost a quarter of the EU’s total healthcare expenditure, with indirect costs - from work absences to enforced early retirement - almost twice as much again. 

The college highlighted the disturbing trend of pharma’s withdrawal in the field, which include the companies: Glaxo-SmithKline, Pfizer, Merck, Sanofi and Novartis, who have all significantly downsized their neuroscience commitment. 

GSK announced in 2010 that it was abandoning its research into depression and pain, areas which were once very much core fields. The company said it would focus research activities in neurodegenerative and neuroinflammatory diseases (such as Alzheimer’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease), where it said it believed the prospects for successful registration and launch of differentiated medicines were greater. 

Novartis is in the process of closing its neuroscience facility in Basel, Switzerland, but will transfer some work to its research headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where genetics of psychiatry and cognitive disorders will be researched. 

This summer Pfizer will be moving its neuroscience research to Cambridge, Massachusetts. This will put the neuroscience and cardiovascular & metabolic disorders research units in the heart of the academic, biotech, and bioinnovation cluster of the Boston area, which the company clearly hopes will inspire some of the brightest minds to join neuroscience research.

While this is good news for the field as a whole, it does seem to confirm a drift of neuroscience investment out of Europe. 

“Neuroscience has long been one of Europe’s outstanding scientific strengths,” says ECNP secretary, Sven Ove Ögren, professor of neuroscience at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet. 

“The loss of hundreds of research positions in the field is an enormous blow. Coming on top of similar closures at almost all of Europe’s big pharma companies, it’s a very worrying developement. What’s now urgently needed is united action from all those interested in Europe’s neuroscientific future to ensure that the region’s neuroscience research base - of which pharma is an indespensible part - does not suffer permanent and possibly irreversible damage.” 

As a demonstration of this commitment, AstraZeneca announced the appointed Dr Mike Poole to lead its newly created virtual Neuroscience Innovative Medicines Unit (iMed) on 7 February.

Poole will have overall responsibility for a portfolio of large and small molecule projects, and will help pioneer a new approach to Neuroscience drug discovery and development, by putting together a small team of AstraZeneca scientists to tap into the most exciting science in the field.

The team will be based in Boston (US) and Cambridge (UK), and manage drug discovery and development projects through collaboration with a network of academic and industry partners in these neuroscience hubs, and around the globe.

Dr Menelas Pangalos, executive vice president of the company’s Inovative Medicines division said: “AstraZeneca is deeply committed to neuroscience research and the discovery and development of new treatments for a full range of neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s, neuropathic pain, depression and Parkinson’s. 

“While many companies have exited or scaled back efforts in this high-risk area, we will step up the search for new medicines to help people with neurological and psychiatric diseases. We are confident this new approach will enable us to tap the most exciting science and discoveries that exist in labs around the world.” 

Poole was formerly chief medical officer for Link Medicine. In addition to his training as a medical doctor and neurologist, he has also served as vice president of the Neuroscience Therapy Area at Wyeth and Pfizer. Poole also served as chief medical officer at Hypnion, a biotech company acquired by Lilly in 2006. 

He has broad leadership expertise and an impressive track record across the areas of drug discovery and development, regulatory affairs, academia, and venture-funded biotechnology. 

AstraZeneca currently has two late-stage neuroscience candidates in the pipeline, both through partnerships with biotechs, with a further nine in Phase I or II development. One of these collaborations is with Targacet, which is focused on depression drug TC-5214.

However, the drug recently failed the first two of four late stage studies, which could see it abandoned by AstraZeneca. Targacept has already seen another big pharma partner, GSK, exit its deal when it decided to withdraw from neuroscience. 

But while AstraZeneca’s reduction in funding is not encouraging news, the exodus from neuroscience is far from complete. Pfizer for one has pledged commitment to neuroscience, even after its own multi-billion cuts to its R&D investment.

Seasoned observers of the pharma industry point out that R&D investment is often cyclical, and that the industry will rush back into the field once the basic science progresses and opens up more new avenues for drug development. 

Denmark’s Lundbeck is well known in the industry for its heritage in psychiatric disease, and remains committed to the field. In November 2011 it agreed a new billion dollar research deal with Otsuka to develop and market products for mental disorders. 

Bridging the gaps in research

Lilly is another long-term investor in the field. Its UK research centre in Erl Wood in Surrey has been a centre of neuroscience research since 1967, and scientists at the site discovered olanzapine (Zyprexa), one of the landmarks in treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. 

The company is looking at ways to help accelerate progress in the field by bringing together academic researchers with industry.

Lilly has just established the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, an industry-academic consortium and post-doctoral fellowship programme focused on increasing the probability of clinical success for potential medicines to treat conditions involving cognitive impairment, such as sleep disorders, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. 

Later this Spring, Lilly plans to open a new building at its Erl Wood research centre.

Another company with a long heritage in the area is Johnson & Johnson, and it is pursuing similar plans aimed at overcoming the obstacles to progress in the field. Its head of neuroscience, Husseini Manji is confident the breakthroughs will come. 

In a posting on the company’s blog in December he said: “We’re on the cusp of a golden age for neuroscience. We’re probing deeper into the intricacies of the brain and beginning to see novel ideas translate into better lives for millions of people.” 

Johnson & Johnson has launched ‘Healthy Minds’ whose flagship commitment is the contribution of up to $3 million to the International Mental Health Research Organization (IMHRO), to support One Mind for research (, a programme aimed at creating a united effort to advance translational research for mental health between government, academia and industry. 

It says alliances are needed to share knowledge, data, tools and models to enhance insight  into disease biology, identify new treatment targets, develop new diagnostics and improve outcomes. 

Such moves are certain to help accelerate progress, but it could be some time yet before the next breakthrough revitalises interest and investment in the field.


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