Recent announcements by companies such as GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and AstraZeneca state that they no longer intend to research new antidepressant drugs and ones to treat schizophrenia, leaving a black hole in the research pipeline.

David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London states:

“What we have forgotten, and must not forget, is if we stop this research we will have a dead space of 20 to 30 years before we can re-tool again. Despite the public health imperative, not only has EU research funding remained very low, but even worse big pharma is increasingly coming to see research into better neuropsychiatric drug targets as economically non-viable.”

A report for the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) published on Tuesday, calls for urgent action to tackle the collapse of funding into research and medicines for brain disorders.

It is rumored that competing medications from different companies has led to this standoff and eventual abandonment of further developments. However, GSK’s chief executive, Andrew Witty, denied last year that the controversy that broke around such pills, including Seroxat which was said to increase the risk of suicidal thoughts in young people as a factor in the decision.

Nutt continues:

“We have a pretty primitive understanding of how the brain works in comparison to other systems. The issue that most comes up is about litigation and companies’ concern that they could be sued 30 years down the line if an adverse effect emerged. We’re thinking the ECNP could perhaps provide the insurance cover.”

Their report says that throughout Europe, brain diseases are responsible for the loss of 23% of years of healthy life and 50% of years of disability at a total cost of over 200 billion pounds a year. Lack of mental health is one of the main reasons for people taking sick leave, early retirement or a disability pension.

There are a number of reasons why companies are leaving the field, according to the report. Medicines for brain disorders take longer to develop than for other conditions, and there is a high failure rate. Drugs can take over decade to fully develop and clinically test.

If the industry is not researching the causes of depression or schizophrenia in order to find new drugs, scientists will not be able to advance their knowledge. Enduring stigma around mental illness means that people are less willing to contribute to mental health research than to cancer research for example.

Nutt adds:

“All drugs have side-effects. The risk-benefit analysis of antidepressants is overwhelmingly positive.”

EU governments have the main responsibility for action in this field, although non-governmental bodies are increasingly active.

EU policies help protect and promote mental health, raise awareness of related issues and create a pan European framework for cooperating and sharing good practice between governments and sectors and linking policies, practice and research.

Research is needed to deepen understanding and enhance the scientific base for policy on the main determinants of health in the EU and of developments in European health and care services. It will contribute to health protection, prevention and promotion, taking into consideration a comparative policy assessment of the determinants for health, such as key lifestyle factors, environmental and socio economic factors, nutrition and gender and other policies that impact on health, such as social exclusion policy.

Sources: The Public Health Portal of the European Union and The European College of Neuropsychopharmacology

Written by Sy Kraft