[News item] Why Big Pharma is not addressing the failure of antidepressants
From the 14 May 2015 post at The Conversation
Around a quarter of people experience depression at some point in their lives, two-thirds of whom are women. Each year more than 11m working days are lost in the UK to stress, depression or anxiety and there are more than 6,000 suicides. The impact of depression on individuals, families, society and the economy is enormous.
Front-line therapies usually include medication. All the commonly prescribed antidepressants are based on “the monoamine hypothesis”. This holds that depression is caused by a shortage of serotonin and noradrenaline in the brain. Existing antidepressants are designed to increase the levels of these chemicals.
The first generation of antidepressants were developed in the 1950s and a second generation came in the 1980s. Products such as Prozac and Seroxat were hailed as “wonder drugs” when they first came onto the market.
In the roughly 30 years since, these kinds of drugs have come to look tired and jaded. Patents have expired and there are doubts about their efficacy. Some scientists even argue the drugs do more harm than good.
There has been no third generation of antidepressants. This is despite there having been moon-landing levels of investment in research. The antidepressant discovery process that gave rise to the earlier drugs is clearly broken. It is also apparent that this process had never worked that well, since the only real improvements over the previous 60 years were a reduction of side-effects.
By the mid-2000s the major pharmaceutical companies started disinvesting in this area. Government funding for basic research into depression and charitable funding followed a similar pattern. In 2010 GSK, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Merck and Sanofi all announced that they had stopped looking for new antidepressants altogether. Professor David Nutt, the former government drug advisor, declared this to be the “annus horribilis” for psychiatric drug research. The likelihood now is that there will be no new antidepressants for decades.
However, there continues to be an urgent and pressing need for more effective treatments. The question the drug companies now need to ask themselves is, did they fail because the task was impossible, or did they fail simply because they got things wrong? Our view is that there was a systems failure.
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