A pact brokered by the U.S. National Institutes of Health will see a group of pharmaceutical companies and non-profit organizations co-operating in the race to find drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease, Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

The group, which includes 10 drugs companies, has agreed to share scientists, tissue and blood samples and data.

The aim is to decipher the biology behind the diseases by tracking down specific markers in the human genome. With Type 2 diabetes on the rise and a wave of Alzheimer's disease sufferers about to emerge in the baby boom generation, these conditions are set to overwhelm public health systems.

'I think most of the fruits of this labour will come with the mapping of different sorts of biomarkers in the human body and knowing which biomarkers to go after.' - Damian Conover, Morningstar

The $230-million project will make data and analyses publicly available in the biomedical community for the next five years.

Damian Conover, a pharmaceutical analyst at Morningstar in Chicago, said most of the collaboration within the group will probably be on foundational knowledge.

"I think most of the fruits of this labour will come with the mapping of different sorts of biomarkers in the human body and knowing which biomarkers to go after," he said in an interview with CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange.

As pharmaceutical firms get further into the process and actually find drugs that can target these biomarkers, they are likely to keep the knowledge close to the chest, Conover said.

But he called the partnership an important step, saying that many of the smaller firms and academics who work in the field will also benefit, as the knowledge will be publicly available.

Foundation of information exchange

"It creates a foundation of information exchange and why that's important is that it's so expensive to understand the roadwork of all these complicated diseases, and when you have a government entity leading the charge, with the support of private companies, you can create this map that a lot of private enterprises can then take and develop drugs to treat a lot of diseases that are unmet with today's medicine," he said.

Francis collins

National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Francis S. Collins,left, helped broker the pact. (Charles Dharapak/ Associated Press)

Pharmaceutical firms usually jealously guard their research that identifies targets on the genome that could be used in diagnostics and new drug development.

But NIH director Francis Collins points out that drug development has become increasingly costly and has a very high failure rate.  

"The good news is that recent dramatic advances in basic research are opening new windows of opportunity for therapeutics," he said in a news release.

"But this challenge is beyond the scope of any one of us, and it’s time to work together in new ways to increase our collective odds of success. We believe this partnership is an important first step and represents the most sweeping effort to date to tackle this vital issue."

High cost to develop drugs

Currently, developing a drug from early discovery through U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval takes well over a decade and costs about $1 billion, with a failure rate of more than 95 per cent, the NIH said.

As study of the human genome becomes more advanced, researchers have been able to identify many changes in genes or proteins that might be indicators of these diseases or might influence the progress of the illness.

But it will take trial and error to determine if these targets might respond to particular drugs, and the NIH believes that research will happen faster if every company isn’t going over the same ground.

The Accelerating Medicines Partnership has been more than two years in the making and involved intense interactions between scientists in the public and private sectors. Collins said if the research proves successful, the partnership model may be used to investigate other diseases.

The alliance involves global drugs firms such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, Lilly, Merck, BioGen and GlaxoSmithKline. The American Diabetes Association, the Lupus Foundation of America and the Alzheimer's Association have agreed to back the project and to help recruit patients for trials.