President Barack Obama announced a U.S. campaign that may lead to new treatments for some of the least understood brain disorders, benefiting efforts by Pfizer Inc., Roche Holding AG and Eli Lilly & Co.
The BRAIN Initiative, will spend $100 million beginning in 2014 to map the complex interactions between brain cells and neurological circuits. The goal is to find treatments for some of the most common brain disorders, led by Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and brain injuries, Obama said at the White House Tuesday.
“We can identify galaxies light years away, study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sit between our ears,” Obama said.
The first $100 million for the initiative will be included in the fiscal 2014 budget coming out April 10, the president said. Congress could then decide to change the amount or eliminate the program altogether. Obama cited government research that spun out new discoveries and jobs, such as computer chips, GPS technology and the Internet.
“Ideas are what power our economy,” Obama said. “We do innovation better than anybody else, and that makes our economy stronger.”
Drugmakers have spent billions of dollars trying to develop medicines for brain disorders. Yet little is known about the causes of many, including Alzheimer’s, a disease expected to affect 65.7 million people by 2030. A better understanding of how the brain records, processes and retrieves information may point drugmakers toward new treatments, scientists said.
“You can’t fix it if you don’t know how it works,” said David Fitzpatrick, chief executive officer and scientific director at the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience in Jupiter, in a telephone interview Tuesday. “We need to get to a level of understanding of brain organization so we can really understand what has gone wrong in these disorders.”
Pfizer, Roche and Lilly already have more than three dozen products in development for neurological disorders including Alzheimer’s, a disease expected to affect 65.7 million people by 2030. The U.S. initiative could help support those efforts, mirroring the effects of the Human Genome Project, which helped formalize the use of DNA sequencing in medicine.
Leading the BRAIN Initiative, which stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, will be the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Science Foundation, according to the statement. Those agencies will partner with companies and private research institutes, including the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
DARPA plans to use some of the funding to develop tools to better diagnose and treat soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries. The National Science Foundation is looking to develop tiny probes that can sense and record the activity of brain neurons and technology to analyze the huge amounts of information on the brain.
The research will focus on very basic science initially as researchers try to understand the language of the brain and develop tools to interpret that language, said Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. He said recent advances in technology have made it possible to start looking deeper into the brain now.
Better funding should improve the odds for finding effective treatments for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and autism, all of which so far have been plagued by failures because much of how the human brain works remains a mystery.
“Those diseases we can do virtually nothing about, only observe and briefly treat symptomatically,” said Howard Federoff, executive vice president of health sciences at Georgetown University Medical Center and a neurologist who studies Parkinson’s disease. “It represents the greatest opportunity for clinical medicine. The implication is that it would offer with that understanding the potential for new therapies that could modify those diseases.”
There have been 101 unsuccessful attempts to develop a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease since 1998, including recent setbacks by Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Lilly, according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
Roche, based in Basel, Switzerland, has 16 drugs in development for neurological disorders, including four for Alzheimer’s disease and two for autism. Indianapolis-based Lilly is working on 10 neurosciences drugs, while New York-based Pfizer has 11 in testing, including two for Alzheimer’s.
Drugmakers are testing more than 600 drugs for psychological disorders, according to PhRMA.
Still, it has been the limited knowledge of how the brain actually works that has been holding back the development of new drugs, said Richard Mohs, who leads early-stage neuroscience research at Lilly. For conditions like depression and schizophrenia, researchers don’t fully understand what causes the symptoms, he said.
Neuroscience and related fields of biology get about $500 million in funding from NIH, the National Science Foundation, and other sources each year, according to government data.