With a decade of intense research on autism’s biology, coupled with a constant rise in diagnoses, has now piqued the interest of pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs for ASD.
Only in the past year, small academic groups, biotechs, and large pharmaceutical companies have all jumped into the field and sponsored clinical trials of new and existing drugs. Initial data from one clinical trial is showing positive results, and more results are expected from many others.
The autistic community has been longing for medications that target ASD’s core symptoms. The drugs approved by the FDA for autism such as antipsychotics, only alleviate secondary symptoms like irritability and aggression.
The majority of pharmaceutical companies’ new efforts for autism are targeting brain chemicals or systems like acetylcholine or neurotransmitters glutamate, for their signaling misfunction in some people with ASD. Others are experimenting with treatments based on ideas that autism originates from issues with protein digestion.
The drugs progressing the most in development treat fragile X syndrome, which is an inherited type of mental retardation and the supposed cause of around 5% of all autistic cases.
Will Pfizer Develop the “Wonder Drug” that Cures Autism?
Last year Pfizer launched an autism research unit, which is the first in an industry giant dedicated to autism.
The autism group as part of the neuroscience unit, investigates Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. Just recently Pfizer announced a new chief for its neuroscience unit, Michael Ehlers, a professor at Duke University who has been studying abnormal neuron connections in mouse models of Angelman syndrome, an autistic-related genetic disorder.
“The reason for the unit is the reason why pharmaceutical companies are in business: we’re trying to identify areas where there’s a significant unmet need,” says Rob Ring, a senior director at Pfizer and head of the autism unit. “There’s no road map for what we’re doing, because no one has ever advanced drugs into the autism patient population.”
Ring led mood disorders research at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals till last year, when the company emerged with Pfizer. He is excited to guide the autism research team, for his research has been focusing on drugs stimulating the receptor of oxytocin, the so-called “trust hormone” that many studies have connected with autism.
At this present point Pfizer still has a long way to go in both research and development of a drug that might alleviate core ASD symptoms.