Alzheimer's Patient
The discovery of molecular mechanism associated with destruction of brain cell connections during the onset of dementia could pave the way for more research into possible treatments. Pixabay

Johnson & Johnson, which recently announced its intent to break into three rapidly emerging but unproven arenas of disease research, has begun unveiling details of its plans. Earlier this month, the New Brunswick, New Jersey, company said it aims to create a vaccine for Alzheimer’s, develop earlier detection of Type 1 diabetes and use microbes in the human body to fight illnesses -- a triad of lofty goals, any one of which would require the sort of groundbreaking developments that could keep a company's research department busy for a decade. But executives offered little beyond the intentions.

Bill Hait, head of research at Janssen Research & Development, a division of Johnson & Johnson, has since told International Business Times that each of the company's new priorities stemmed from Johnson & Johnson's 2020 plan, which predicts that patients will take a more active and personalized approach to health care within five years. Hait also outlined the initiatives his company is pursuing to position itself for this shift.

"By advancing science in these areas, our new research platforms will strive to deliver the next generation of transformational medical innovation," Hait said in the original statement. He calls the opportunity for treatments in these areas "unprecedented" and adds, "Whoever can step into that space, I like to say, will be the next Johnson & Johnson."

The areas that Johnson & Johnson has identified could prove lucrative; the market for Alzheimer's treatments is valued at $5 billion worldwide and expected to grow to as much as $20 billion by 2020. By 2050, the number of people with Alzheimer's disease could triple from the approximately 44 million that suffer from it today. The market for microbiome-related products, which use microbes in the human body to fight illnesses, will also expand to $658 million by 2023, according to MarketsandMarkets.

Meanwhile, scientists, medical professionals and other industry leaders also see opportunities as medicine shifts toward preventive treatments and drug companies attempt to engineer more personalized prescriptions -- two of the global trends that Janssen has said inform its strategy. However, it's unclear whether the resources devoted to the company's new initiatives will be enough for its researchers to meet the its ambitions over the next few years.

Alzheimer's Disease

As part of its new efforts, the company is creating a prevention center focused on finding vaccines for ailments like Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, autoimmune diseases and cancer which fall outside the realm of infectious diseases that many people are accustomed to being vaccinated against. “One of the reasons we landed on Alzheimer’s was that the emerging science is suggesting that the disease spreads through the brain very much like an infectious disease,” Hait says.

In order to succeed, Janssen's researchers must first learn more about the way the disease spreads and then engineer a vaccine to combat it. With Janssen's 2011 acquisition of biotechnology firm Crucell, which developed vaccines for cholera, hepatitis B and the flu, the company is eager to capitalize on treatments for non-infectious diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's that are only expected to increase in an aging population.

A vaccine for Alzheimer’s has long been hoped for, but a clinical trial for one was cut short in 2002 when 6 percent of patients who received it suffered inflammation in their brains. That vaccine worked on amyloid proteins, which clump together in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. This failure may make it more difficult for engineers of any new Alzheimer's vaccine to win regulatory approval and public confidence.

Janssen has its sights set on a vaccine produced by Switzerland-based AC Immune that works in a slightly different way. It targets another protein called tau thought to be more closely related to the spread of Alzheimer’s through the brain. Janssen already struck a deal with its creator that gives Janssen full rights and responsibility for developing the vaccine once it passes the first in three stages of clinical trials.

“If they're trying to develop a tau vaccine, that is quite novel,” Charles DeCarli, a neurologist and director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at University of California-Davis, says. “My only concern is that some tau is normal [in the brain]. The other downside is that amyloid is in the brain years and years before tau is in the brain.” DeCarli points out that even if Janssen had a vaccine ready to go today, it would take three to five years to show that the treatment is safe and effective in animals before the company could even begin clinical trials.

Overall, 120 people will work in Janssen’s new prevention center, which is to be the largest of the three initiatives that the company has just announced, at a primary facility in the Netherlands or in auxiliary labs in the U.K. and California, according to Oliver Stohlmann, vice president for research communications for Janssen.

Early Detection

Janssen calls its second initiative a “disease interception accelerator” and says it will focus on detecting and treating diseases long before symptoms occur. The accelerator is headquartered in New Jersey and currently staffed with four people. “We haven't been as good at saying how one progresses from being susceptible to an illness to actually becoming ill,” Hait says. “I think once we start digging in and understanding this, then we can start intervening.”

For example, many doctors currently prescribe statins to lower patients’ cholesterol and prevent heart attacks. Hait adds: “Right now, we equate disease with illness but really, many diseases start many, many years before illness.”

Janssen has announced that staff at the accelerator will first look for ways to ward off Type 1 diabetes through a partnership with JDRF, the nation’s largest research and advocacy organization for efforts to fight the disease.

An early warning that comes far ahead of any that is currently available could help researchers to delay the onset of diabetes or reduce the likelihood that a patient would need to use insulin injections to manage it.

Human Microbiome

The final new priority on Janssen’s list is the human microbiome -- the term for the trillions of microbes that live in the human body. Many scientists believe these microbes play a key role in maintaining health, but researchers are just beginning to understand the organisms' connection to well-being. Janssen is certainly not alone in turning its attention toward this mysterious but potentially powerful array of microorganisms. In fact, whole companies have been created to do exclusively this.

However, Janssen has made the greatest commitment among major drug companies toward this end, including collaborations with Second Genome for autoimmune diseases and Vedanta, which is making a treatment for inflammatory bowel disease. The director of Janssen’s new microbiome institute has only just been hired and Stohlmann did not share details on how large it will be, though he did say that most of the research will be done in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Belgium.

Stohlmann also says the overall research and development budget of Janssen will remain the same and that resources will be reallocated to support all three of the new initiatives.