Pfizer is pulling out of neuroscience drug discovery and early development, and cutting 300 positions in its neuroscience division.

Prior to the announcement, the company had eight neuroscience products in phase I and phase II trials. These consisted of four clinical programmes in Alzheimer disease, as well as candidates for Parkinson disease, epilepsy, schizophrenia and cognitive disorder. Alzheimer drug development efforts are especially fraught, with an estimated 99.6% failure rate. Speaking at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference in January, Pfizer's head of R&D Mikael Dolsten defended the move as a means “to focus and reallocate our resources into the other five areas where we think we can give the most value mid-term to shareholders and patients.”

But Morgan Sheng, vice president of Neuroscience at Genentech, is optimistic that new neuroscience therapeutics are on the horizon. “I don't see a mass exodus of big pharma and biotech out of neuroscience. Quite the opposite, the field is becoming increasingly competitive, especially in neurodegenerative disorders, multiple sclerosis, pain and rare diseases of the nervous system,” he says. Genetic analyses in particular are helping to identify the molecular underpinnings of neural diseases and are pointing to new CNS targets in these indications, he adds (see page 88).

Recent deal-making activity bolsters Sheng's position. Takeda Pharmaceuticals partnered with Denali Therapeutics in January in a deal that could be worth up to US$1.2 billion to collaborate on three programmes for Alzheimer disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. In December the neuroscience-focused Denali also pulled off the biggest biotech initial public offering of 2017, raising $250 million.

Johnson & Johnson also announced four neuroscience collaborations in January, including projects looking at gene therapy for Alzheimer disease and the role of the microbiome in sleep disorders.