Drug Companies Cutting Research into Mental Health Drugs

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In what is thought to be a consequence of economics, drug companies have significantly lowered funding for drug studies aimed at mental health patients, including those most likely to suffer addiction. This comes at a time when new research from the academic world is revealing mechanisms underlying addiction. However, it takes more than a discovery and identification of a drug target, someone actually has to develop a drug that works.

ROI takes priority over health

Two articles in the March issue of Nature magazine decry a flaw in the system that puts returns on investments ahead of exploring, and finding, new treatments for broad societal problems. Addiction certainly counts as in that category.

With approximately one quarter of US adults suffering from a treatable mental illness, including anxiety, depression and addiction as a comorbid condition, the market seems to be in place. So why aren’t the drug companies interested in going after it?

The answer, according to these commentators, is two-fold

On the one hand, developing these drugs is costly and entails a great deal of risk. On the other, the landscape we label as mental illness is a fractured one. The more specific a drug is, the less chance it has of selling well to more than a select group of patients.

Companies looking for drugs with broad applications

On the cost side, an entire research budget can be wiped out if final tests go awry, or if, even after a successful launch, lawsuits come flowing in and pull back any profits. When a drug has broad applications, such as the most popular class – anti-cholesterol drugs – the high volume of sales can make up for the risks. This isn’t the case when a drug may only be useful in smaller subset of the population. Along with this deal killer comes the loss of patent rights as drugs move into generic status – sometimes just as the entity is starting to make a net profit.

There are a couple of radical solutions offered however. Crowdfunding, a newly legalized (March 2012) form of venture capitalism could offer investments to that class of people concerned with a particular illness. Essentially offering a chance to fund a promising treatment themselves. Another idea is to move toward insurance company financing – and attractive option because of the cost of untreated disease conditions. Even at a very high price, a drug is almost always cheaper than letting something get worse.

Unfortunately, there is little money to be had from governments, the traditional sponsor for less profitable things that are judged social goods.

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