Tackling mental illness by supporting industry to develop new drugs

An academic/industry partnership, based at the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre, is helping companies use experimental medicine approaches to speed up development of new drugs to treat psychiatric disorders.

girl with her arms up standing near some waterMental illnesses are one of the leading causes of disability across the world.
According to the World Health Organisation, mental illnesses such as depression are one of the leading causes of disability across the world – yet there is still huge unmet need for drugs to treat psychiatric disorders.

‘Around one third of people with depression are resistant to current drug therapies, but unfortunately, few new treatments have been successfully developed in the last decades,’ explains Professor Susannah Murphy. ‘Front-line drug development in this area is considered high-risk and commercial companies have not given it the attention that other areas of medicine, such as cancer therapies, have received.’

The Experimental Medicine Industry Partnership (EMIP), based at the NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre (OH BRC), is now helping commercial companies to translate evidence from pre-clinical models into therapies which can be tested in full-scale human trials – speeding up the rate at which drugs may become available to patients.

Murphy, continues: ‘Taking a drug candidate from lab to clinical trials is difficult and expensive, involving many participants taking a drug over a long period and self-reporting its effects on them, which is notoriously unreliable. An experimental medicine approach aims to provide initial evidence that a new treatment has effects in humans that suggest it might be useful clinically. Using this approach, we conduct ‘experiments’ such as asking healthy volunteers to perform certain tasks and monitoring their brain activity through neuroimaging to assess their response to a drug. This allows rapid investigation of potential therapies, before large-scale clinical studies.’

EMIP draws on Oxford’s well-established expertise in cognitive neuroscience, pharmacology, neuroimaging and precision psychiatry. Services offered include, advising companies on the use of experimental medicine approaches in treatment development; sign-posting to appropriate commercial or academic partners; and helping with the development of funding proposals.

EMIP launched in 2021 with an Academic Industry Meeting Day (AIMday), attended by 53 representatives from 15 companies, as well as over 90 academics. AIMdays are an opportunity for industry partners to pose research and development questions, which are then discussed by a panel of academics with diverse expertise.

Professor Catherine Harmer, who leads the OH BRC Depression Therapeutics theme, comments: ‘The AIMday was an excellent start to the Partnership and it was fascinating to hear from industry colleagues about the challenges they face. The conversations have inspired us to develop our ways of working to best support commercial entities and sparked many ongoing collaborations.’

One early success from EMIP is work on repurposing a drug currently used to treat ‘constipation’ to tackle depression. ‘Early experiments indicate that Prucalopride improves brain function and could be used to treat the cognitive symptoms of depression,’ continues Murphy. ‘It’s a great example of how experimental medicine can help us understand how drugs affect different cognitive processes and brain function. Knowing this gives us insight into how these drugs might be used to treat different symptoms, such as low mood or cognitive function – offering patients a more precise, personalised and effective treatment.’

'The impact of mental illness on people’s lives can be devastating, particularly for young people who – once affected – may suffer symptoms for many years, so it’s vital we speed up research into treatments. It’s still early days for EMIP, but our experience so far shows that it’s a fantastic opportunity for industry and academia to work together. We hope that the Partnership will be able to rapidly progress new therapies into clinical trials over the next few years, bringing life-changing drugs a step closer to improving the lives of patients.'

Susannah Murphy is Associate Professor at University of Oxford Department of Psychiatry

Catherine Harmer is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Oxford Department of Psychiatry

Funders: Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Oxford University John Fell Fund.