- A new project from the think tank Helena aims to find new treatments for conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and concussions by taking another look at drugs that already exist.
- This approach, called “generic drug repurposing,” can be faster and cheaper than other ways of developing drugs, but isn’t financially incentivized today.
- Helena and its partners want to change that by setting up a new kind of financial mechanism.
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Several years ago, the neuroscientist and entrepreneur Rebecca Brachman made an accidental discovery that she thought could be a game-changer for psychiatry.
Her research, done in mice, suggested that a cheap generic drug could be used preventively to stave off conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, Brachman said.
But Brachman would soon find it was a no-go. Investors were only interested in new compounds, where patent protection makes it financially lucrative to invest in research and development.
Brachman is now partnering with the think tank Helena and prominent figures like former US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Mark McClellan and investor Dave Morin in hopes of changing that.
“If you were to look at the entirety of the potential of diseases we could address, beyond just one set of drugs, the potential savings are enormous,” Lyn Stoler, project director at Helena, told Business Insider. “And that’s not even looking at the human health impact.”
A new financial mechanism aimed at solving a well-known problem
Drugs can be used to treat more than one disease, and generic drugs – already available at typically low prices to consumers – would appear to be obvious candidates for just that. That process, called “generic drug repurposing,” can be faster and cheaper for a developer. Yet without intellectual property protection to justify the investment, there’s a lack of financial incentive to do so – a problem that’s well-known in the academic community, but not as much outside it.
So Helena and its partners are proposing a solution: a financial mechanism in which investors benefit from the savings that these types of drugs bring to the healthcare system, similar to a model like social impact bonds.
The idea is that groups like academic research organisations or the government would carry out the project, with the support of private investors like venture capital firms. If the new drugs are successful, backers that stand to benefit – like the federal government, state governments, employers, or private insurers – would pay back some share of the savings.
Helena says that generic drug repurposing can take just three to five years, compared with the decade plus that traditional drug development takes.
‘Repurposed’ drugs could be used for Alzheimer’s disease, concussion and multiple sclerosis
Based on preliminary economic modelling, repurposed generics could save tens of billions of dollars in the US alone, Helena’s Stoler said.
“These are massive, massive healthcare savings,” she said.
Helena is now showcasing the plan to attract backers and investors. The team has been in touch with the nonprofit the Pacific Business Group on Health, which represents large employers like Walmart and Boeing, as well as research teams involved in work on repurposing candidates.
That list of drugs includes:
- the antiviral valacyclovir, which could have applications in Alzheimer’s disease
- the antidepressant phenelzine, which could be used in concussion, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, traumatic brain injury and stroke
- silver diamine fluoride, for dental cavities
- the antihistamine clemastine fumarate, for multiple sclerosis
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