Pharma counts just 3 Alzheimer's drug wins in 13 years (101 losses!)

Alzheimer's drug research has riddled biopharma with some of the worst odds of success in the already risky R&D game. And as the industry feels the sting from recent failures of two Phase III programs aimed at the memory-stealing disease, a U.S. pharma group has revealed the abysmal track record of Alzheimer's drug R&D between 1998 and 2011 with a message that the losses could eventually contribute to big victories as scientists learn from their mistakes.  

In that 13-year stretch, drug developers have scrapped or halted development of 101 meds for the complex disorder and brought to market only three treatments for symptoms of the disease, according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). This should come as no surprise to those who have followed the recent late-stage disasters of Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) and Pfizer's ($PFE) bapineuzumab and Eli Lilly's ($LLY) solanezumab. Do the math on PhRMA's figures and from 1998 to 2011 you end up with a sad win-to-loss ratio of one to 34.

Yet PhRMA CEO John J. Castellani, whose group released two reports on the subject, backed further development of drugs for Alzheimer's, and his group notes in a press release that there are 93 meds in the pipeline against the disease and other dementias. In fact, biopharma has shown no signs of letting up in the hunt for treatments against Alzheimer's, which afflicts about 5.4 million Americans who have access to just 5 approved drugs for symptoms of the disease and no drugs that reverse progression, according to figures cited in one of the group's reports. This creates huge demand and blockbuster sales potential for new drugs. 

"Setbacks in Alzheimer's research are disappointing to many, including the scientists carrying out the studies, but these unsuccessful attempts are critical stepping stones to advancing our understanding of this extremely complex disease," Castellani said in a statement. "The reality is that so-called failures in the development of new drugs for Alzheimer's are helping redirect research--providing new information that allows science to move forward."

The disease already costs $200 billion in medical expenses, according to one of the reports, and a rapid rise in cases could cause that figure to skyrocket to $1 trillion by 2050. The group says that a breakthrough treatment that delays onset of Alzheimer's by 5 years could shave nearly half of that wowing cost of medical attention.

So onward goes the R&D march for new treatments, with scientists grappling with deciphering the biology of the poorly understood disease and developers plotting new paths forward for drugs in the pipeline.

- see PhRMA's release

Special Report: The Alzheimer's pipeline: What's next?