Stock prices have fluctuated wildly in response to factors such as persistently high unemployment, impending cuts in federal spending, and the downgrade of America’s credit rating. The already conservative pharmaceutical industry is hunkering down and socking away cash to be safe. Since January, Merck has saved $1 billion in cash, and Johnson & Johnson has saved $3 billion. The savings have come at the expense of R&D budgets, making observers wonder where the new drugs will come from.
Thanks to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the new drugs may already be here. The organization conducted a computational study that analyzed genomic and drug data to predict new uses for currently marketed medicines. “If we can find ways to repurpose drugs that are already approved, we could improve treatments and save both time and money,” said Rochelle M. Long, director of NIH’s Pharmacogenomics Research Network, in a press release.
Scientists examined a publicly available NIH database that contains the results of thousands of genomic studies. The database includes information about changes in gene activity that resulted from diseases or the administration of medicines. Using a computer program, scientists searched for drug–disease combinations whose genetic effects canceled each other out. For example, if one disease increased the activity of certain genes, the program searched for drugs that would decrease the activity of those genes.
The program correctly predicted that prednisolone could treat Crohn’s disease, which is already known. But the program also came up with previously untried treatments, such as cimetidine, an antiulcer medicine, for lung cancer. Researchers are investigating cimetidine’s effectiveness for this indication, and also whether the anticonvulsant topiramate could treat inflammatory bowel disease as the computer predicted.
Although expanding the indications of existing drugs does not necessarily represent innovation, it could certainly help improve patients’ lives. The approach also could mitigate the effects of industrywide cuts to R&D budgets. The NIH computational study is yet one more example of how drugmakers can take advantage of the public sector’s expertise.