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Drug companies, government team up in hunt for cures

by Maggie Fox /  / Updated 
Dr. Leonidas C. Platanias
The government is teaming up with 10 big drug companies on basic research for some major diseases.Bloomberg / Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Ten companies that usually spend billions of dollars chasing the same disease goals are going to team up with each other, disease advocacy groups and government scientists to tackle some major diseases: Alzheimer’s, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

They’ll try to bypass the “valley of death" that kills 95 percent of drugs before they ever hit the market, focusing instead on what should be the targets most likely to lead to new treatments or even cures.

“Currently, we are investing a great deal of money and time in avenues with high failure rates, while patients and their families wait,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, which is helping coordinate the effort.

The five-year project will start small, with investments of just $230 million to share scientific data about the basic biology of the very different diseases.

“The good news is that recent dramatic advances in basic research are opening new windows of opportunity for therapeutics,” Collins said in a statement. “But this challenge is beyond the scope of any one of us and it’s time to work together in new ways to increase our collective odds of success. “

The 10 companies — AbbVie, Biogen Idec, Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly and Company, Merck & Co., Pfizer, Sanofi and Takeda Pharmaceutical Company — will work with NIH and nonprofits such as the American Diabetes Association, the Alzheimer’s Association and the Lupus Foundation of America.

"Too many hoped-for drugs fail during research and development, and the reason for this is that we don’t fundamentally understand the biology we’re trying to modify,” said Michael Ringel of Boston Consulting Group, a consulting firm helping to coordinate the collaboration.

Often what happens is the NIH pays for the very early research that looks at the biology of disease. When there's a possibility for a drug, it licenses the rights to a commercial company to develop a compound or other treatment. But it's a process that takes years, and companies are reluctant to take on expensive challenges that might not pan out. 

The project aims to help home in on the most promising avenues of research and speed up the sharing process.

One of the biggest challenges will be taking on Alzheimer’s, which affects between 4 million and 5 million Americans, depending on the estimate. It’s projected to rise to 13 million in the next 35 years. 

There’s no good treatment and no cure, and patients gradually lose the ability to remember, to find their way around and to care for themselves.

The project will look for ways to predict how an Alzheimer’s patient will fare, and to predict how much they may be helped by future treatments. Scientists at different labs will share data and samples from brains of people who have died from Alzheimer’s to try to better understand it — experts still don’t agree on the causes — and find ways to prevent or reverse it.

Doctors understand Type 2 diabetes better — it’s caused by a combination of genetics, poor diet and lack of exercise. But it’s at epidemic rates, affecting 26 million Americans. The project aims to share information from at least 100,000 patients about genes that cause or are affected by diabetes and information on studies that look at the damage it causes to the body.

Rheumatoid arthritis and lupus are both autoimmune diseases, caused by the immune system mistakenly attacking healthy tissue. As many as 1 percent of Americans have rheumatoid arthritis, which can affect the joints but also the lungs, kidneys and heart. Treatments suppress the immune system and patients are vulnerable to infectious diseases and cancer.

Lupus is similar and affects an estimated 5 million people worldwide. The project will collect and analyze tissue and blood samples from people with rheumatoid arthritis and lupus to help sort out why different people respond differently to the various treatments and to try to help scientists better understand what causes both diseases.

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