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Why Has Psychiatric Drug Development Stalled Lately?

This article is more than 8 years old.
Just because drug companies get a lot of flak for pushing psychiatric medications, that doesn't mean anyone wants them to stop developing better ones.

But that is what's happening: investment in new psychiatric treatments is on the decline, reports Dr. Steven Hyman, former head of the National Institute of Mental Health and now director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute. And that decline has hit even though psychiatric drugs have been highly profitable and one in five American adults now takes at least one, he says.

Hyman writes in the latest issue of Cerebrum, the Dana Foundation magazine:

During the past three years the global pharmaceutical industry has significantly decreased its investment in new treatments for depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other psychiatric disorders. Some large companies, such as GlaxoSmithKline, have closed their psychiatric laboratories entirely. Others, such as Pfizer, have markedly decreased the size of their research programs. Yet others, such as AstraZeneca, have brought their internal research to a close and are experimenting with external collaborations on a smaller scale.

What's going on? Read the full article here — a well-written history of attempted progress despite the lack of fundamental understanding of how mental illnesses actually work. And — in keeping with this week's widespread talk of the new federal brain mapping initiative — Hyman remains optimistic that new scientific advances will bear fruit. He writes:

Our best hope is that the genetics will unfold over the next several years, due to the efforts of large international consortia that have formed to recruit and to study patients.

As genetic clues accumulate, scientists are devising new ways to investigate their neurobiological functions and dysfunctions. One interesting development is to use stem cell technologies to complement the use of laboratory animals with human neurons engineered from skin cells of healthy subjects and from patients. The leading approach is to take a small skin biopsy from the arms of volunteers and to transform skin fibroblasts into neural progenitors and into neurons. Genetic engineering can then be used to add risk-causing mutations to “healthy” neurons and to reverse risk mutations in patients’ neurons. But it is still early in this new field, and it is not yet possible to engineer the specific kinds of neurons implicated in schizophrenia by postmortem studies.

This barrier is likely to fall soon. Whether or not engineered neurons or human neural circuits on a chip prove to be good systems for studying gene function, researchers will make substantial efforts to turn genetic clues into ideas for therapeutics. Many researchers hope that such efforts will help attract the pharmaceutical industry back to psychiatry by demonstrating new paths to treatment development. The emerging genetic results may be the best clues we have ever had to the etiology of psychiatric disorders.

Readers? Do you share his optimism?

This program aired on April 3, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.


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