7:23 PM PST, February 4, 2014
Pfizer Inc., Eli Lilly & Co. and eight other large drug makers will partner with the U.S. government in a $230-million effort to identify new approaches to treat Alzheimer's, diabetes, lupus and arthritis.
Data generated from the work will be made public for other scientists to use, a move the U.S. National Institutes of Health called groundbreaking. The targeted diseases are some of the most prevalent conditions among Americans, costing the nation billions of dollars in treatment and lost productivity.
The venture may be particularly important in Alzheimer's research. Since 1998, there have been more than 100 attempts to develop a treatment, and all have failed. The last two years have featured setbacks by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. Sanofi Chief Executive Chris Viehbacher has said his company won't pursue therapies because the science isn't advanced enough to justify the risks and cost to develop a drug.
"We are going to try to increase the odds of picking the right targets to go after for the next generation of drug development," NIH Director Francis S. Collins said Tuesday in Washington. "We want to pick them at the very beginning of the development process and thus avoid wasting precious time and money chasing down drugs."
The companies and the NIH will split the $230-million cost about equally, Collins said.
More than 5 million Americans suffer with Alzheimer's disease, and the number is expected to triple by 2050. The only drugs approved for the condition ease symptoms for a few months while the debilitating brain disease rampages on. Still, the treatments generate more than $5 billion annually.
Research coordinated by the NIH will include collecting tissue samples from thousands of patients to look for common "biomarkers" that might be good targets for new drugs, the agency said. The first projects are expected to last three to five years, and may lead to collaborations on other diseases if the research is successful, the NIH said.
The coordinated effort "rallies scientific key players of the innovation ecosystem in a more unified way," said Mikael Dolsten, president of worldwide research and development for Pfizer in New York.
Rupert Vessey, senior vice president at Merck & Co. in Whitehouse Station, N.J., identified new, innovative ways to develop drugs as the most crucial health challenge facing the industry. The collaboration "will be important to unraveling the mysteries of the diseases that cause suffering for individuals and are a burden to our society," he said.
In addition to Pfizer, Merck, Eli Lilly, Sanofi and Johnson & Johnson, other companies involved are AbbVie Inc., Biogen Idec Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., GlaxoSmithKline and Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will also participate, as well as nonprofit advocacy groups representing patients suffering from the diseases, the government said.