Drugmakers May Gain from US Alzheimer's Push

Roche and Eli Lilly, two drugmakers racing to develop treatments for some of the least understood brain disorders, may gain the most from a US government boost in funding to fully map the human brain.

The National Institutes of Health is in the planning stages of a massive effort called the Brain Activity Map to understand how neurons actually process information, Story Landis, director of the agency's Neurological Disorders and Stroke division, said today. It may take at least five years to develop the tools needed to map out all this information, she said.

"A lot of people see neurological research as the last great frontier in biomedical science," Landis said in an interview. "There are lots of people looking at individual circuits, this would take the science to a whole new level." Better funding should improve the odds for finding effective Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and autism treatments, which so far have been plagued by failures because much of how the human brain works remains a mystery. There have been 101 unsuccessful attempts to develop a treatment for Alzheimer's disease since 1998, including recent setbacks by Pfizer Inc., Johnson & Johnson and Lilly, according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

"This attention to neuroscience research is exciting," said Luca Santarelli, the head of neuroscience at Basel, Switzerland-based Roche, Europe's second-largest drugmaker by sales. "Advancements in the understanding of the molecular and circuit basis of brain disorders will dramatically advance the development of treatments for patients." Roche 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.

The NIH initiative would be akin to what happened with the Human Genome Project, where DNA sequencing was already occurring at a small scale before the project to map the entire human body was started, said George Church, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Personal Genome Project.

While researchers can already track the activity of perhaps 100 or so brain neurons at a time, the new opportunity is to connect those on a large scale and then measure activity at the detail level and the whole brain level, Church said.

"This is about basic technology as well knowledge," Church said in a telephone interview. "We stand at the doorway of a fundamental intersection of nanochemical sensors that can read or write neurons and synthetic biology. It's overripe for this merger." Neuroscience and related fields of biology get about $500 million in funding from NIH and other foundations each year, Church said. The Obama administration plans to make a budget proposal to Congress next month for billions of dollars in spending for the project, the New York Times reported earlier. A spokesman for the White House said he couldn't immediately comment on any budget plans.