The April ECNP newsletter described the successful award of an Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) grant to a consortium of academics brought together originally as an ECNP research network. It represents a major European funding initiative to unpick the biology of social withdrawal, which is a common early symptom of schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and major depression. The PRISM project (Psychiatric Ratings using Intermediate Stratified Markers) is a €16.5m public-private cooperation, which unites researchers from European academic centres, and major pharmaceutical companies.
A research initiative for ECNP was first broached during the presidency of the late Yves Lecrubier. The first idea was for a research centre along the lines of the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC). EORTC was founded about 50 years ago, in a visionary step by leaders in cancer medicine who realised that advancement of patient management requires solid understanding of the disease and its biology, vigorous testing of novel treatments, and interdisciplinary collaboration and exchange beyond national boundaries. It now acts directly to support and conduct independent and industry-supported clinical trials funded at a European level. Its existence and success has depended upon the strength of the trial culture in cancer medicine. The more we looked at it the more we liked it, but the less we could see how immediately to create such an institution for applied neuroscience. However, it can and should remain an aspirational goal.
The first ECNP Networks formed bottom-up to develop proposals for European grants for the study of drug treatments in children and young people with psychiatric disorders. This was an area of considerable unmet need, of particular interest to the regulators because of concerns about safety. A network of ECNP members and other colleagues was successful in winning a succession of European grants. It served as a template for other disorders under the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). Unfortunately, its successor (Horizon 2020), has appeared so far less well suited to this approach. However, the IMI offers an important opportunity very well suited to promoting advances in translational neuroscience.
The ECNP Summit in 2011 highlighted the crisis in drug development for psychiatry and neurology caused by the extensive withdrawal of big pharma from neuroscience. Lack of scientific understanding of the root causes of psychiatric disorders was a major reason behind the withdrawal. In the origins of psychopharmacology, major drug classes were discovered as a consequence of serendipity. In contrast, modern drug design (most notably in cancer) aims to target a known biological process, quantify the treatment effect and determine worthwhile outcomes. The absence of this systematic methodology for common psychiatric disorders is a major barrier to successful innovation. EFPIA (the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations) approached the IMI with this problem in mind and PRISM was born, led originally by Boehringer Ingelheim and Lilly.
The great strength of the IMI programme is that it is led by industry but it enables academia. It seems to me a perfect mechanism for encouraging the interest of neuroscientists in applying their skills to psychiatric disorders. At the risk of sounding like a broken vinyl record, neuroscience attracts brilliant people to study wonderfully interesting things. But the most interesting thing in neuroscience, neuroscientists usually do not study and that is mental illness. As a fascinating if distorted window on normal experience, and a source of enormous burdens for individuals and society, mental illness deserves to be better served by the best people in neuroscience.
In fact, the IMI process is almost uniquely aligned with what ECNP stands for in translational neuroscience. We bring together scientists from academia, the clinic and industry, basic and clinical at the annual congress and in the networks. Therefore PRISM should provide an exemplar for promoting applied neuroscience at the European level. We plan to identify a specific evening slot in Vienna this year to discuss with industry representatives how we can inform EFPIA’s interest and efforts. Other IMI applications must be possible: we can help create them. It is the proverbial win/win situation.