Is there a future for pharma in neuro?

The retreat of big biopharma from neuroscience R&D continued apace in 2019, with Amgen axing its neuroscience unit and Eli Lilly shuttering a U.K. facility. Those actions came in the wake of Pfizer’s 2018 decision to get out of neuroscience discovery and clinical development along with a much earlier wave of cuts involving companies including GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis.

After a decade of cuts, big companies have a reduced presence in neuroscience R&D. If that process is to go into reverse, big players will likely need to see evidence that the high failure rates and weak returns on investment that drove them out of the field are a thing of the past.

A clutch of smaller companies are working to show neuroscience R&D can be a therapeutically and economically worthwhile activity. Around one-third of the Fierce 15 class of 2019 had some involvement in neuroscience R&D, and a scan of the mental illness and neurological disorder pipeline reports from PhRMA shows small players account for a significant share of assets in development.

How the assets covered in those reports fare will influence the direction of travel for big biopharma in neuroscience R&D in the coming years. Expensive, high-profile failures could persuade companies that have stuck with the field to decide their R&D budget would be better spent elsewhere. On the flip side, a few successes that suggest researchers are getting to grips with the underlying biology of the brain could renew interest in the big therapeutic and economic opportunities in neuroscience.

The same dynamics may play out in the VC-backed biopharma space that is keeping neuroscience R&D afloat, with successes or failures potentially driving money into or out of the field.