Partnering for a better mental health

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To address the challenges of drug development, solid strategic partnerships are needed. On the Janssen partner day, the company showcased an ongoing partnership with the University of Antwerp in mental health and how this partnership leads to better outcomes.

On the 9th of March 2017, Janssen and FlandersBio held their yearly partner day. This edition aimed to stimulate collaborations in the field of brain health. To lead by example, Janssen showcased an ongoing partnership with the University of Antwerp and various psychiatric hospitals in the Antwerp region. This partnership brings together complementary expertise and streamlines both fundamental and clinical research, directly benefitting the patient.

The project was introduced by Maarten Timmers, Director of Experimental Medicine, Neuroscience at Janssen and Manuel Morrens, Professor at the University of Antwerp and member of the Collaborative Antwerp Psychiatric Research Institute (CAPRI). This institute is a joint effort in scientific research in the field of medical psychology and psychiatry at the University of Antwerp, its University Hospital (UZA), other Antwerp hospitals (ZNA), and the Emmaus psychiatric hospital in Duffel. The partnership has reached its fifth anniversary, and it is still going strong.

Unifying expertise

The drug development process suffers from high attrition rates. The fallout is highest in phase II clinical trials, when drugs are first tested on patients. In this step, many challenges must be overcome. Sufficient numbers of patients must be identified, characterized, and enrolled in the trial, which requires a large clinical network. Furthermore, well-trained professionals are needed to attract appropriate subjects as well as keep them motivated and compliant through frequent patient contact. Once a trial is established, adequate biomarkers, tools, and scales are essential for measuring the drug’s effects. This process requires a broad range of skills that can be found via a combination of clinical and academic settings.

Creating a win-win situation

Drug development involves many different partners, including industry, hospitals, academic centers, and patients. To build solid strategic partnerships that can address the inherent challenges, a mutual strategic interest must be present. For academic institutes, this mainly entails fostering the pressure of publication. There is also a need for access to new, innovative medications for translational research. Finally, collaborations are essential for obtaining additional funding and providing new insights as ideas and concepts are shared. Care institutions and patients are seeking improved care. Therefore, new and more efficient medications should be developed that treat the disease itself and not only the symptoms. This requires a deeper understanding of the pathophysiology, which is supplied by academic research. Hence, care institutions carefully select the appropriate partners to realize the greatest benefit.

Antwerp: A psychiatric research hub

From the perspective of clinical psychiatric research, Flanders is a rather interesting region. Regarding the number of psychiatric beds per capita, Belgium is one of the densest countries in the world, which makes it easier to include patients in clinical trials. In Antwerp, there are five psychiatric hospitals in close proximity to each other, the University of Antwerp campus, and Janssen. This offers an ideal environment for collaboration and integration, and the need is high. As for their upcoming 2018 studies, Janssen must recruit 500 psychiatric patients. The academic expertise of the University of Antwerp was combined with the clinical practice at the psychiatric hospital in Duffel by setting up the joint venture SINAPS. This is a pharmacological unit located on the hospital grounds, bringing together the best of both worlds. SINAPS has intimate contact with the surrounding medical teams, which provides direct access to 600 patients, and their network also includes other psychiatric hospitals throughout Flanders. In addition to a fully equipped lab, SINAPS’ personnel are well versed in patient contact, which will optimize enrollment, support patients, and enable assessments throughout the trials.

Linking patient-care and research

This partnership with the University of Antwerp creates an environment that not only supports pure clinical drug development but also fundamental research. For example, ongoing experiments are investigating whether inflammation may have a role in bipolar disease. SINAPS’s researchers are attempting to unravel the pathophysiology of the disease and searching for new biomarkers. This fundamental work complements their translational research, and both programs are now enhancing each other. In the near future, SINAPS will move into a new building on the hospital campus in Duffel. Research will take place on the top floor, while the ground floor will be reserved for patient consultations; this represents a literal model of how things fit together in this perfectly designed collaboration. While the initial partnership was intended to cover a five-year period, that plan is now seen as only the beginning because it has already become extremely fruitful. Future plans include additional collaboration to continually increase the drug development process, foster academic research, and improve patient care.