The Unfulfilled Promises of Psychotropics
I remember thinking over 40 years ago when I began my clinical career, that with the rapid advances made in psychotropic agents, psychotherapy would become a venture of the past. A recent editorial published in Schizophrenia Bulletin dispels my myth of becoming unemployed.
Psychopharmacology is in crisis. The data are in, and it is clear that a massive experiment has failed: despite decades of research and billions of dollars invested, not a single mechanistically novel drug has reached the psychiatric market in more than 30 years. Indeed, despite enormous effort, the field has not been able to escape the “me too/me (questionably) better” straightjacket. In recent years, the appreciation of this reality has had profound consequences for innovation in psychopharmacology because nearly every major pharmaceutical company has either reduced greatly or abandoned research and development of mechanistically novel psychiatric drugs. This decision is understandable because pharmaceutical and biotechnology executives see less risky opportunities in other therapeutic areas, cancer and immunology being the current pipeline favorites. Indeed, in retrospect, one can wonder why it took so long for industry to abandon psychiatry therapeutics. So how did we get here and more importantly, what do we need to do to find a way forward?
The discovery of all three major classes of psychiatric drugs, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and anxiolytics, came about on the basis of serendipitous clinical observation. At the time of their discoveries, the mechanisms by which these molecules produce their effects were unknown, and it was only later that antipsychotics were shown to be D2 receptor antagonists, antidepressants monoamine reuptake inhibitors, and anxiolytics GABA receptor modulators. It is interesting and perhaps instructive to consider whether any of these classes of drugs could have been discovered by current drug discovery strategies. For example, what genetic or preclinical data exist that point to the D2 dopamine receptor as a likely target for antipsychotic activity? Presently there are no genetic data that suggest that this receptor is expressed or functions abnormally in psychotic disorders (emphasis added). And without the benefit of the prior clinical validation, it is difficult to see how preclinical data alone would point to the D2 receptor as an interesting potential target for the treatment of psychotic disorders. The same can be said for monoamine transporters with respect to depression where, like psychosis, there are no animal models based on disease pathophysiology and no compelling preclinical data pointing to these as potential targets for antidepressant drugs. This raises a troubling question: if in retrospect the three major classes of currently prescribed psychiatric drugs would likely never have been discovered using current drug discovery strategies, why should we believe that such strategies are likely to bear fruit now or in the future?
Given that there cannot be a coherent biology for syndromes as heterogeneous as schizophrenia, it is not surprising that the field has failed to validate distinct molecular targets for the purpose of developing mechanistically novel therapeutics. Although it has taken our field too long to gain this insight, we seem to be getting there. For example, at the 2011 meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, the need for change and the need for new strategies were predominant themes.
In summation the excitement in the past two decades about the “Decades of the Brain” are fading to realism. Our human genome is much more complex than we can imagine. Half of our genes are devoted to brain form and function. The interaction between geneotype and phenotype is also more complex that we realize. Thus, we are approaching this science with more skepticism and realism.
Fibiger HC (2012). Psychiatry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the road to better therapeutics. Schizophrenia bulletin, 38 (4), 649-50 PMID: 22837348
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