J&J seeds an ambitious open R&D program for neuroscience

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J&J neuroscience R&D chief Dr. Husseini Manji

Just how far can you go with an open R&D approach to drug development? Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) is stepping up with $3 million to seed a new program that intends to find out.

J&J has set up a group called Healthy Minds, which will assist the International Mental Health Research Organization in setting up a collaborative effort on neuroscience drug programs. Faced with some Herculean R&D tasks, the campaign for a collaborative research approach to brain disorders will set out to marshal forces from Big Pharma, biotech, academia and government agencies on both sides of the Atlantic, testing the limits of the new "open innovation" movement in drug development.

It's a simple marriage of necessity and opportunity, explains Husseini Manji, M.D., the global head of neuroscience R&D for the pharma giant. Given the myriad advances on the genetics involved in neuroscience, there's plenty to be done. And with some big developers pulling out of the complex field after spending too much with too little to show for it, there's a big need to work together to crack some of the puzzlers that all researchers face.

Three million dollars isn't much in the drug research world. But J&J's Janssen group is just priming the pump here, looking for others to jump in a project that will attempt to tackle some big tasks and test the limits of open collaboration in an industry where leaving IP unprotected by patents is considered a cardinal sin.

"We're the first ones getting this going," says Manji, who's expecting other groups--in particular U.S. agencies like the Department of Defense and the NIH--to start adding cash and resources.

Manji added the effort signals J&J's long-term commitment to neuroscience, a field in which the company has been investing large sums to advance work on bapineuzumab, one of the most ambitious late-stage drug programs for Alzheimer's disease.   

"As science gets more and more specialized, work is getting more compartmentalized," says Manji. But for complex diseases like Alzheimer's, it's important for researchers to take a more holistic approach. This new money can be used to "set up the infrastructure by which different kinds of data could all be looked at and interrogated together."

That will take help from companies like IBM, GE and Intel, which can provide some of the tech tools needed to do the interrogation work. And while individual scientists rely on relatively small grants to support projects, a group like this could engage academic groups at top centers such as MIT and Johns Hopkins to undertake some Manhattan Project-style programs on sequencing to truly understand all of the complex biology at work in these diseases. New biomarkers could be established to guide the work on these ailments and help foster regulators' understanding of new drugs and how they work. And ultimately researchers could find themselves working on I-Spy 2-like programs, in which researchers could design adaptive trials that test varying doses of different therapeutics from rival companies.

J&J is thinking big, but starting small.

The first disease network being announced with this effort is for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, a big concern for the U.S. government and a new generation of soldiers damaged by the wars in the Middle East. Once the infrastructure is in place, adds Manji, a couple of projects can get started in 2012 and new ones added as the movement grows.

Some of the collaborative work shouldn't be too difficult to set up. Everyone would benefit from joint work on biomarkers, just as a fresh source of better animal models would advance work in the schizophrenia field.

"You also have to allow people to retain or acquire IP, get a return on their investment," says Manji. This could work much like Sematech, where different groups brought resources to the table "with the understanding that if it turns into something, you can draw such-and-such based on your contribution."

In the semiconductor industry, he adds, you couldn't afford not to get involved. That's the kind of motivation J&J wants to help create for drug R&D.

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