Roughly 5.5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, which causes memory loss and cognitive decline, and it’s currently the sixth-leading cause of death. By 2050, that number is expected to grow to 13.8 million Americans. More than 50,000 Americans each year are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which affects a person’s ability to control their body movements.
The big drug company Pfizer, in an announcement over the last weekend, has now said it was shutting down its research efforts on treatments for Alzheimer’s and Parkinsonism. The pharmaceutical giant explained its decision, which will entail roughly 300 layoffs, as a move to better position itself “to bring new therapies to patients who need them.”
Pfizer said that the money saved on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease R&D will be used in other places and that it will still be investing in research for other rare neurological diseases. But that will likely be cold comfort to families struggling with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“Our overall R&D spend remains the same at this time and is at the high end of our industry peers. This was an exercise to re-allocate [spending] across our portfolio, to focus on those areas where our pipeline, and our scientific expertise, is strongest,” Pfizer said in a statement.
Pfizer said it will continue its support of tanezumab, a late-stage pain treatment in development with Eli Lilly & Co., and the fibromyalgia drug Lyrica, as well as research into neurological drugs for rare diseases. The company also plans to soon start a venture fund committed to neuroscience.
“It’s really alarming to see such a large pharmaceutical company deciding to abandon research into the brain and central nervous system,” James Beck, chief scientific officer at the Parkinson’s Foundation said. “It’s telling for how difficult it is to do research into neurodegenerative diseases.” Of even greater concern, he said, is that “having Pfizer exit does not augur well for what other companies are likely to do.”
Like several peers, Pfizer has invested heavily in developing treatments for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s because of the huge need, but met disappointment when once-promising compounds failed to work during testing.
Notably, in 2012, Pfizer and partner Johnson & Johnson halted development of an Alzheimer’s drug called bapineuzumab after it failed to slow memory loss in test subjects. Other companies, such as AstraZeneca PLC, Biogen Inc. and Eli Lilly & Co., keep pursuing Alzheimer’s treatment, but analysts consider the projects very risky.