There’s a computerized repository in Israel that looks like any other with data sets, tables, forms, graphs and reports. But tap in the right username and password and you’ll access the world’s most comprehensive repositories of research data from drug studies to treat schizophrenia and depression.
This warehouse of information is a key component of NewMeds (Novel Methods Leading to New Medications in Depression and Schizophrenia) — an international consortium of scientists, funded under the Innovative Medicines Initiative of the European Union, which has launched one of the largest-ever academic-industry collaborations to find new methods for developing drugs for these two mental disorders.
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Israel’s representative in this consortium is Prof. Jonathan Rabinowitz, of Bar-Ilan University’s Louis and Gabi Weisfeld School of Social Work. Rabinowitz is the academic head of the NewMeds group on advanced data analysis techniques. He’s in charge of devising procedures for shorter and more efficient clinical trials with antipsychotic and antidepressant medications.
Rabinowitz is considered a pioneer in this field. As part of the NewMeds project, he was given unprecedented access to data on drug testing from more than 45,000 patients in over 100 trials spanning 25 countries.
“If you have data from one drug study, you can learn something about this one study. But if you have 100 studies and put them together you can learn a lot more,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “This is an important area of attention because of the realization of how much good you can do by pooling data.”
The NewMeds repositories at BIU, with billions of dollars’ worth of data, give “Israel a central position in this new evolving area,” says Rabinowitz. “It’s a super-important asset. So it puts Israel, and BIU, in a lead role.”
Making a difference
Schizophrenia affects about 1.1 percent of the US population, while depression has an effect on one in 10 Americans.
Rabinowitz, a 54-year-old father of three who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and moved to Israel 24 years ago, has extensive experience in studying the efficiency and safety of psychiatric medications based on data from trials and national case registries. A quick Internet search sees his name pop up on committees, in research papers and in academic journals worldwide.
Since the NewMeds initiative’s inception in 2010, Rabinowitz has travelled extensively, presenting this data repository at academic conferences and health gatherings. He has published more than 150 scientific papers.
He will present his research at the eClinical Intelligence meeting in San Francisco at the end of February. Next year, he will co-chair the program committee for the Biennial Schizophrenia International Research Society Conference in Florence, Italy.
For the greater good
Not everyone is excited by the idea of pooling data.
“Sharing information is the key to developing new models and methods to enable novel treatments in any disease. But when a drug company spends $35-$50 million dollars per trial, you can understand why they are hesitant about sharing data,” he says. “But they will have to.”
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is now setting up a policy to ensure that pharmaceutical manufacturers make their trial data accessible. Unsurprisingly, the EMA recently appointed Rabinowitz to the advisory groups on promoting good analysis practice and on clinical trial data formats. He also serves on the Clinical Expert Review Committee for the FDA data standards development initiative.
“What’s been exciting is that this is really cutting edge and we’re able to maximize use of data that’s already been collected. Data sharing beyond the individual trial adds to the ethical capital of conducting drug studies. More good can come from the time and risk that people subjected themselves to for being involved in these trials where some of them were getting placebo and experimental active treatments,” says Rabinowitz.
He predicts that it will take many years to reap the benefits of his work in finding new medications for sufferers of schizophrenia and depression. On the other hand, he notes, collaboration and sharing data will help advance the field by making better use of resources.
He says it is gratifying that NewMeds partner pharmaceutical companies, which are normally fierce competitors, can now focus on what he dubs “pre-competitive space” — common issues such as identifying subsets of patients to target in drug discovery trials.
“Of course there is hope for advancement in the field. We work together in this pre-space,” says Rabinowitz. “We are trying to design drug discovery trials to make them more efficient based on our findings.”