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Venture to attack Alzheimer's and lupus

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(Bloomberg) — Pfizer Inc., Eli Lilly & Co. and eight other large drugmakers will partner with the U.S. government in a $230 million effort to identify new approaches to treat Alzheimer’s, diabetes, lupus and arthritis.

Data generated from the work will be made public for other scientists to use, a move the U.S. National Institutes of Health called groundbreaking. The targeted diseases are some of the most prevalent conditions among Americans, costing the nation billions of dollars in treatment and lost productivity.

The venture may be particularly important in Alzheimer’s research. Since 1998, there have been more than 100 attempts to develop a treatment, and all have failed. The last two years have featured setbacks by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. Sanofi Chief Executive Officer Chris Viehbacher has said his company won’t pursue therapies there because the science isn’t advanced enough to justify the risks and cost to develop a drug.

‘We are going to try to increase the odds of picking the right targets to go after for the next generation of drug development,’’ Francis Collins, the NIH director, said today at a press conference in Washington. “We want to pick them at the very beginning of the development process and thus avoid wasting precious time and money chasing down drugs.”

The companies and the NIH will split the $230 million cost about equally, Collins said.

More than 5 million Americans suffer with Alzheimer’s disease, and the number is expected to triple by 2050. The only drugs approved for the condition ease symptoms for a few months while the debilitating brain disease rampages on. Still, the treatments generate more than $5 billion annually.

Research coordinated by the NIH will include collecting tissue samples from thousands of patients to look for common “biomarkers” that might be good targets for new drugs, the agency said in a statement. The first projects are expected to last three to five years, and may lead to collaborations on other diseases if the research is successful, NIH said.

Rupert Vessey, senior vice president at Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based Merck & Co., identified new, innovative ways to develop drugs as the most critical health challenge facing the industry. The collaboration “will be important to unraveling the mysteries of the diseases that cause suffering for individuals and are a burden to our society,” he said in an e- mail.

Other companies involved are AbbVie Inc., Biogen Idec Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., GlaxoSmithKline Plc, J&J, Sanofi and Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will also participate, as well as nonprofit advocacy groups representing patients suffering from the diseases, the government said.

“We exited mental illness and largely Alzheimer’s about four years ago, but not because we weren’t interested in it, but because we thought it was so difficult alone,” said Lon Cardon, senior vice president of alternative discovery and development at London-based Glaxo. “Now we’re interested in the Alzheimer’s space because we can join forces.”

The NIH is the largest source of funding for biomedical research in the world, with an annual budget of more than $30 billion. Much of that money is consumed by basic research into human biology and the study of the major causes of death, including cancer and infectious diseases.

The agency expects to spend about $1.1 billion on diabetes this year; $562 million on Alzheimer’s; $260 million on arthritis and $109 million on lupus. The agency will spend $3.1 billion researching HIV and AIDS, by comparison, the most of any single disease.

–With assistance from Michelle Fay Cortez in Minneapolis and Makiko Kitamura in London. Editors: Bruce Rule, Andrew Pollack

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