LONDON Scientists worried by waning commitment from major drugmakers to brain research warn the prospect for new drugs to treat diseases like Alzheimers is bleak unless regulators and governments find incentives fast.
Big Pharma is struggling to make money from neuroscience -- the science of how the brain works and affects behavior -- because research is proving unpredictable and costly at a time when companies are grappling with patent expirations and pressure to cut prices.
Experts in the field of neuroscience say moves by firms like GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and Merck to back away from some brain research and development (R&D) may sound its death knell in Europe and put it at risk elsewhere if nothing is done to recapture their interest.
They suggest companies could be encouraged to reconsider if they were given the option of sharing the risk of developing new drugs with publicly-funded research institutions, or if current patents were extended to ensure better returns on investment.
"If we think about a whole range of things from multiple sclerosis, to stroke, to Alzheimer's disease, to schizophrenia, to autism, we don't have effective treatments for any of them -- and the reason is that we don't really understand the basis of those diseases," said Colin Blakemore, a professor of neuroscience at Britain's respected Oxford University.
"The need for fundamental research that can be drawn on is the only hope for the development of new treatments."
HUGE COST, HUGE POTENTIAL
Potential markets for any new treatments that are developed could be huge, while the economic cost of failing to treat them could be equally big.
The number of people with dementia, of which Alzheimer's is the most common form, is expected to double worldwide by 2030 to 66 million, and almost double again to 115 million by 2050.
A report by Alzheimers Disease International recently estimated that the worldwide costs of dementia would reach $604 billion in 2010 -- more than one percent of global GDP output -- and that those costs would soar as the number of sufferers triples by 2050.
In pain -- another area where neuroscience could make headway -- experts estimate that in Europe alone, around one in five people suffers chronic pain, a debilitating and costly condition for which there are also few new treatments.
"Neuro-related disorders are enormously important...they make up around a third of the entire burden of disease globally in the costs in quality of life and in the costs in treatment and care," Blakemore said.
Despite this, GSK, to take one example, last year sold off an R&D site in Italy where its scientists had been focused on discovering new drugs for depression, anxiety and pain. The British drugmaker said uncertain investment returns had led it to abandon research in these areas.
Similar moves by Anglo Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca and U.S. drugs giant Merck -- to either close down neuroscience research altogether or move research operations to Asia -- have caused alarm among neuroscientists.
"There are things we could do about it," David Nutt, a professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, told a meeting in London on Thursday.
"There are relatively simple initiatives like co-development, like extending patent licenses, which could quite easily turn around this process."
Nutt, who will soon take over as the president of the British Neuroscience Association, said he planned to work with European College of Neuropsychopharmacology to bring drug firms, regulators and funders together in a series of "high-level meetings" to try find a new way forward.
"If we don't, neuroscience will die," he said.
MENTAL ILLNESS STILL STIGMATISED?
Part of the problem is that mental illness is still stigmatized and brain diseases are not seen as serious -- a factor that means drugmakers are not reprimanded by the public or their shareholders when they back away.
"If Big Pharma suddenly said they were not going to do any cancer research, the outcry would be enormous," said Barbara Sahakian, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at Cambridge University.
"But because it's mental health, it's all quiet and there is no outrage about them not taking on their social responsibilities."
She said part of the responsibility also lies with regulators such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) who could lower the barriers to getting new neurological treatments licensed, or fast-track them as they do in other key areas.
"There are mechanisms to do this. They (the regulators) fast-track drugs for HIV AIDS, so they could fast-track drugs for mental health," she said.
"We could also very easily say let's look at the cost that the pharmaceutical industry has paid in bringing a drug to market, and then consider the patent life in regard to that."
(Editing by Sophie Walker)