President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced a federal campaign that may lead to new treatments for some of the least understood brain disorders, benefiting efforts by Eli Lilly and Co., Pfizer Inc. and Roche Holding AG.
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.
“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.”
The brain activity map may help open a new window on how neurons process information, said Story Landis, director of the agency’s Neurological Disorders and Stroke division, in a February interview. Pfizer, Roche and Lilly have more than three dozen products in development for neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s, a disease expected to double in scope to affect as many as 65.7 million people by 2030.
“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.”
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, in an interview in February.
It will take at least five years to develop tools needed to map out the information, Landis said.
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.
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.
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.
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.