Will Novartis lead a pharma industry return to neuroscience R&D?

Pyramidal neurons. Source: Retama. http://bit.ly/18j9iOP

Pyramidal neurons. Source: Retama. http://bit.ly/18j9iOP

A prominent feature of pharmaceutical company strategy in recent years has been massive cuts in R&D. These cutbacks have hit especially hard in areas that have not been productive in terms of revenue-producing drugs.

Chief among the targets for R&D cuts and layoffs has been neuroscience. As outlined in a 2011 Wall Street Journal article, such companies as AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi, and Merck have cut back on neuroscience R&D, especially in psychiatric diseases. (Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, despite the frustrations of working in this area, have continued to hold some companies’ interest.)

The retreat from psychiatric disease R&D has been occurring despite the fact that mental health disorders are the most costly diseases in Western countries. For example, according to the same Wall Street Journal article, mental disorders were number one in the European Union in terms of direct and indirect health costs in recent years. In 2007, the total cost of these conditions in Europe was estimated at €295 billion ($415 billion). Indirect costs, especially lost productivity, accounted for most of these costs.

The Novartis return to neuroscience R&D

Now comes a Nature News article by Alison Abbott, Ph.D. (Nature’s Senior European Correspondent in Munich)–dated 08 October 2013, entitled “Novartis reboots brain division”.

As discussed in that article, Novartis closed its neuroscience facility at its headquarters in Basel, Switzerland in 2012. However, as was planned at the time of this closure, Novartis is now starting a new neuroscience research program at its global R&D headquarters, the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR) (Cambridge, MA).

The old facility’s research was based on conventional approaches, centered on the modulation of neurotransmitters. This approach had been successful in the 1960s and 1970s, especially at Novartis’ predecessor companies. In that era, Sandoz developed clozapine, the first of the so-called “atypical antipsychotic” drugs, and Ciba developed imipramine, the first tricyclic antidepressant.

Since the development of these and other then-breakthrough psychiatric drugs, the market has become inundated with cheap generic antidepressants, antipsychotics and other psychiatric drugs. These drugs act on well-known targets–mainly neurotransmitter receptors.

Neurotransmitter receptor-based R&D has become increasingly ineffective. What has been needed are new paradigms of R&D strategy to address the lack of actionable knowledge of CNS biology. As a result of this knowledge deficit, pharmaceutical industry CNS research has become increasingly ineffective, which is the motivation for the cutbacks and layoffs in this area. Moreover, there have been no substantial improvements in therapy. For example, there are no disease-modifying drugs for autism, or for the cognitive deficits of schizophrenia.

Novartis’ return to neuroscience is based on a fresh approach to R&D strategy, based on exciting developments in academic neurobiology. This strategy is based on study of such areas as:

  • Neural circuitry, and how it may malfunction in psychiatric disease
  • The genetics of psychiatric diseases
  • The technology of optogenetics, which enables researchers to identify the neural circuits that genes involved in psychiatric disorders affect.
  • The use of induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS) technology, which enables researchers to take skin cells from patients, induce them to pluripotency, differentiate the iPS cells into neurons, and study aspects of their cell biology that may contribute to disease.

In support of this strategy, Novartis has hired an academic, Ricardo Dolmetsch, Ph.D. (Stanford University) to lead its new neuroscience division. Dr. Dolmetsch’s research has focused on the neurobiology of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. His laboratory has been especially interested in how electrical activity and calcium signals control brain development, and how this may be altered in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).

The projects in the Dolmetsch laboratory have included:

  • Use of iPS technology–as well as mouse and Drosophila models–to study the underlying basis of ASDs.
  • Studies of calcium channels and calcium signaling in neurons, their role in development, and how they may be altered in neural diseases.
  • The development of new technologies to study neural development, and developing new pharmaceuticals that regulate calcium channels and that may be useful for treating ASDs and other diseases.

Novartis’ new approach to neuroscience is completely consistent with the company’s overall biology-driven (and more specifically pathway-driven) approach to drug discovery and development. We discussed this strategy in our July 20, 2009 article on the Biopharmconsortium Blog. We also discussed more recent development with Novartis’ overall strategy in our September 4, 2013 article on this blog.

Interestingly, the idea of hiring an academic to head Novartis’ new neuroscience division replicates the hiring of an academic–Mark Fishman, M.D. (formerly at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston MA)–as the overall head of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in 2002.

Novartis’ timeline for neuroscience drug development

Novartis neuroscience program intends to work toward discovery and development of therapeutics for such neurodevelopmental conditions as ASD, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as well as for neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

All of the technologies and research strategies that Novartis plans to use in its neuroscience division are novel ones, and mainly reside in academic laboratories. Novartis therefore plans to collaborate with academia in its neuroscience research efforts–as it does in other areas.

The collaboration between Novartis and academic labs will be facilitated by accepting the norms of academic research. Research results will be published, and academic institutions will be allowed to patent targets and technologies that emerge from the research. However, Novartis will have the right to develop drugs based on the targets, and will have the right of first refusal to license the patents.

According to Dr. Dolmetsch, and to Novartis advisor Steven E. Hyman, M.D (director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute, Cambridge, MA), Novartis’ new approach to neuroscience will take a long time (perhaps around 5 years) before the first drugs start entering the clinic. As with other project areas  based on Novartis’ pathway-driven drug discovery strategy, it is likely that the first clinical studies will be in rare diseases (e.g., types of autism driven by specific genetic determinants).

Is Novartis leading the way to a broader industry return to neuroscience?

An important question is whether other pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies will follow Novartis into a return to neuroscience R&D, based on biology-driven strategies. According to Alison Abbott’s article, Roche is planning such a program. However, other Big Pharmas are so far staying out.

Meanwhile, the European Commission, via its Innovative Medicines Initiative, is attempting to foster academic/pharma industry collaboration to study genetics and neural circuitry in autism, schizophrenia and depression. In the United States, the National Institutes of Health has launched the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, focused on study of neural circuitry.

Entrepreneurial start-up biotech companies, backed by leading venture capitalists, have also been exploring novel neuroscience-based approaches to drug discovery and development. For example, in Cambridge MA, there are Sage Therapeutics (backed by Third Rock Ventures and ARCH Ventures), and Rodin Therapeutics (backed by Atlas Venture). However, another Cambridge MA neuroscience company, Satori Pharmaceuticals, which had been focused on Alzheimer’s, had to close its doors in May 30, 2013, after the preclinical safety failure of its lead compound. This illustrates the risky nature of neuroscience-based drug development, especially in small biotech companies.

Nevertheless, after the decades-long failure of neurotransmitter receptor-based R&D to yield breakthrough drugs for devastating psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases, biology-driven drug discovery R&D appears to be the way to go.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to  your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

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