Neuroscience lures dealmakers despite drug development challenges

Jamie Munro

While no other therapeutic area matches oncology in dealmaking volume, neurology is “among the nearest contenders.” That’s the main theme of recent analysis developed by Jamie Munro and Helen Dowden, of Clarivate Analytics. Their article, “Trends in Neuroscience Dealmaking,” was featured in the Biopharma Dealmakers supplement to Nature Biotechnology and Nature Reviews: Drug Discovery.

Munro, global practice leader, portfolio and licensing, at Clarivate, spoke recently about the challenges in the neuroscience sector.


Q: Dealmaking in the neuroscience space has increased in the last decade, despite a daunting lack of drug approvals. What keeps the life sciences industry optimistic?

Munro: We believe the increase in deals is driven by a number of factors. Firstly, the high failure rate in neurodegenerative diseases means that companies are having to look outside to find assets to backfill for internal assets that have failed in clinical trials.

Secondly, companies are willing to partner their neuroscience assets because many are deemed high risk and the allure of risk-sharing with a partner is attractive – an example would be AstraZeneca’s BACE inhibitor which AstraZeneca partnered with Lilly as part of its strategy to virtualize its neuroscience therapy area and therein reduce the overall risk of its pipeline.

Thirdly, some companies continue to believe the area remains highly attractive. With no new medicine to treat Alzheimer’s in 15 years, the first company that can bring forward a promising new medicine with clinical benefits is almost certainly going to have a mega-blockbuster.


Q: Why is Alzheimer’s disease, in particular, such a challenge?

Munro: Alzheimer’s disease is a challenge for a number of reasons. The failure of multiple drugs over the past 15 years has shown that treating late-stage Alzheimer’s is largely ineffective – at least with the treatments to date – and that by the time symptoms manifest themselves unequivocally it may be too late to halt or reverse the effects.

Also, understanding of the biology of the disease is still not fully mature and this has concentrated efforts on a small number of targets which have yet to demonstrate benefits in large numbers of patients.

For example, there is still some debate about the extent to which the presence of amyloid plaque is the cause or effect of Alzheimer’s. This has led researchers to pursue beta-amyloids even though the recent string of failures suggests the answer to the beta-amyloid hypothesis remains elusive. In addition, the number of companies exiting the area has reduced the overall investment in the neurosciences and thereby probably delayed the arrival of a significant breakthrough.


Q: You point out in the Biopharma Dealmakers piece in Nature that the roster of players in neuroscience has shifted pretty dramatically. Please explain.

Munro: Driven by some of the lowest overall success rates compared with other therapy areas, over the past decade many companies have exited neuroscience altogether whilst others have scaled back their investments significantly. Exiting companies include the likes of Bayer, Bristol-Myers Squibb and, more recently, Pfizer, whilst AstraZeneca, as we noted above, has “virtualized” its neuroscience therapy area which involved significantly cutting the number of staff, partnering high-risk assets and moving the therapy area staff offsite and operating under a largely autonomous model.

But the direction of investment has not been all one way as a number of companies have strengthened their neuroscience pipelines over the same period. These include AbbVie, Amgen, Biogen, Novartis, Roche and Takeda – all demonstrating their commitment – and are in part driven by their success in other areas, many in oncology, which has allowed them to build in neuroscience.


Q: You also note that the neuroscience landscape now encompasses medical devices. What are med-tech companies bringing to the table?

Munro: Medical devices are starting to change neuroscience and offer even greater potential. As well as diagnostics that are aiding with diagnosis, devices are also helping in other areas such as data capture and intervention.

These include digital devices, many mobile application-based. These are capturing data that is shining a light on patient mobility which was not available hitherto. Out-patients were previously only monitored periodically during hospital visits. Now such devices are able to track patient movement continuously and within their own home and thus able to provide a more accurate and complete movement profile.

In addition, devices are also reminding patients when to take interventions. That ensures better compliance.


For further analysis of the neuroscience investment landscape, check out this free on-demand webinar, “Neuroscience investment, challenges, and outlook,” featuring Jamie Munro.

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