TORONTO—As Alzheimer’s disease ravages more elderly people each year in the United States and Canada, Janssen, a Johnson & Johnson company, in conjunction with the Johnson & Johnson California Innovation Center, has signed an agreement with the University of Toronto’s Centre for Collaborative Drug Research (CCDR) to launch a joint research study focused on new therapeutic approaches to the treatment and management of Alzheimer’s disease and mood disorders.
The ambitious project, called Neuroscience Catalyst, is considered an innovative collaboration between industry, academia and the research community, Janssen reports, adding that Neuroscience Catalyst will help identify medical and scientific opportunities in early-stage development, which can progress to clinical treatment for brain disorders.
“Collaborating with the University of Toronto to advance the study of mood disorders and Alzheimer’s disease demonstrates Janssen’s ongoing commitment to investing in early-stage research and meeting unmet patient needs,” stated Dr. Paul Kershaw, vice president of medical affairs for Janssen Canada. “This agreement supports medical research and development in Canada, which is fundamental to the sustainability of our healthcare system.”
The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that as many as five million Americans age 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease. Unless the disease can be effectively treated or prevented, the numbers will increase significantly if current population trends continue.
That’s because the risk of Alzheimer’s increases with age, and the U.S. population is aging, the NIH states. The number of people with Alzheimer’s doubles for every five-year interval beyond age 65.
In Canada, the numbers are nearly as grim.
According to the Alzheimer Society of Toronto, an estimated 500,000 Canadians have Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia. More than 70,000 are under age 65 and approximately 50,000 are under the age of 60.
The Toronto organization also states that one in 11 Canadians over the age of 65 has Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia, and in just five years, as many as 50 percent more Canadians and their families could be facing Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia.
Participating researchers in the project will have access to cutting-edge drug discovery tools and information, as well as access to Johnson & Johnson Innovation and Janssen R&D resources, thereby facilitating research progress, according to Janssen. The University of Toronto will co-fund the research and create a structure for soliciting and evaluating proposals from researchers, including from other academic hospitals and research institutions, as well as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
“We are delighted to collaborate with the University of Toronto on the Neuroscience Catalyst program, which deepens our commitment to the translation of exciting new concepts in the field of neuroscience drug discovery research,” stated Dr. Husseini K. Manji, global therapeutic area head for neuroscience at Janssen R&D. “Working with some of the world’s best neuroscience researchers based in Canada, this collaboration will further our understanding of mood disorders such as depression as well as Alzheimer’s disease.”
Guy Seabrook, neuroscience therapeutic area lead for Johnson & Johnson California Innovation Center, said Janssen and the Johnson & Johnson California Innovation Center will provide funding over three years, as well as in-kind drug discovery expertise.
The financials of the collaboration were not disclosed.
“Innovation facilitates better health outcomes—and often at lower costs,” Seabrook tells DDNews. “Our investments in R&D are helping us continually deliver meaningful innovations for healthcare professionals and patients.”
The Neuroscience Catalyst project has been set up to avoid the hurdles of bureaucratic red tape and bruised egos that often slow down the best of plans.
“The structure of this relationship has been deliberately designed to reduce hurdles and barriers to success that commonly exist in collaborations between academia and industry,” Seabrook says.
“For example, we are placing emphasis on providing in-kind support with drug screening technology that is state-of-the-art within the industry,” he explains. Also, “we are not restricting the opportunity for commercialization of successful projects that may require external financing to progress to the next level.”
The drug discovery process “is inherently risky, and thus we have scaled the nature of the collaboration to take into account the likely attrition of projects,” Seabrook says.
“It should be noted that the value of our relationship will be based not just upon those projects that are successful but also upon the scientific progress in learning what not to do in terms of areas of science to pursue,” he says.
Neuroscience is one of the scientific areas identified by Janssen on which to focus its R&D, and Janssen is building on a legacy of helping patients with mood disorders and Alzheimer’s disease. The help is not limited to those 60 and older, though.
“Mood disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, among others, are increasingly common,” Seabrook says. “In fact, Canadians have a one-in-five chance of having a mental illness in their lifetime, with adults between the ages of 20 and 29 showing the highest rates of depression and anxiety symptoms.”
Approximately 10 projects will be funded, although the costs have “not yet been specified,” he notes.
“The success of our relationship will be based on projects that are successfully spun out into new corporate entities or business vehicles that are capable of attracting further external financing, in areas of strategic importance to Johnson & Johnson/Janssen,” Seabrook says.
But first, representatives from the University of Toronto and Janssen will form a joint steering committee to review research proposals and provide recommendations to the CCDR for external review and approval, according to Janssen. The committee will also provide scientific oversight, advice on funded research and will monitor the progress of and review results arising from the research. The first call for proposals will be issued in November.
“As its name suggests, this collaboration will be a catalyst for the discovery of new therapeutics targeted at mental health and neurodegenerative disorders,” said Prof. Ruth Ross, director of the Centre for Collaborative Drug Research, chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Toronto and senior scientist with the Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute at CAMH.
“Conditions such as dementia and depression affect hundreds of millions worldwide, and that number is rising,” Ross stated. “By working together in an open innovation partnership, we can conduct the basic research needed to identify new therapeutic options for patients.”
Reza Moridi, Ontario’s minister of research and innovation, added, “Partnerships between talented researchers and innovative companies can lead to advances beyond what any of us could accomplish working alone. I applaud the collaboration between the University of Toronto, Janssen and Johnson & Johnson Innovation. Thanks to the visionary work of these organizations, Ontario will continue to lead life-sciences discoveries that result in better mental health and quality of life for everyone.”