The Surprising Way Big Pharma Is Researching New Drugs

Trying to find new ways of approaching a common health condition can be, well, a bear -- but the country's pharmaceutical companies won't let that stand in their way.

Jessica Alling
Jessica Alling
Jan 4, 2014 at 8:00AM
Health Care

Pharmaceutical companies have used animals in their research for decades. But now, the companies are expanding their subject from just rats and mice, with Amgen (NASDAQ:AMGN) leading the way with some grizzly results.

Source: Flickr; Nomadic Lass.

Hey, hey, Boo Boo! I got an obesity researcher for you!
Amgen has enlisted the help of 12 grizzly bears to help in the research for a useful obesity drug. Since upwards of 36% of the nation's population is obese, the research on bears could be helpful insight for the pharmaceutical market, which hasn't had a ton of success with the current drugs on the market.

Since bears hibernate, they are used to packing on the pounds in preparation for a long winter's nap. But unlike humans, when they put on 100 or more pounds, their bad cholesterol may hit the ceiling and their blood pressure may spike, but they aren't at any greater risk for a heart attack, stroke, or diabetes.

Researchers, lead by Dr. Kevin Corbit, are taking a look at how the bears' bodies handle the stress of the increased weight. One key may be the bear's ability to reduce its sensitivity to the hormone insulin while hibernating, which allows the body to slow down the rate at which fat and sugar are broken down for use or energy storage.

Man's best friend(s)
Bears aren't the only animals that have helped pharmaceutical researchers develop new drugs for humans. A drug from Merck (NYSE:MRK) was developed after research on narcoleptic dogs from Stanford University pointed to a specific region in the brain that acts as a switch between sleeping and wakefulness. Though it is still in the process of FDA approval and needs to be tested on more people before the full range of side effects are discovered, Suvorexant seems like a promising alternative to the traditional sleeping medications that effect the entire nervous system.

Researchers have also enlisted the help of lemon sharks to study their cancer-defying abilities, llamas for their disease-fighting antibodies, and Antarctic penguins for the effects of fasting on the body. The use of the various species has seen more success for the researchers than genetically mutated mice or rats thanks to natural predispositions to the research thesis under study.

America's big problem
The research being performed by Amgen's team at Washington State University's grizzly center is key to a major problem that the pharmaceutical industry has yet to concur. Though Arena Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:ARNA) and VIVUS (NASDAQ:VVUS) both have FDA-approved drugs on the market -- Belviq and Qsymia, respectively -- neither company has found the silver bullet for the nation's obesity epidemic.

Historically, drugs for weight loss have been plagued by horrific side-effects. While the new generation has cut back on the adverse effects, there has also been a reduction in the efficacy of the drugs themselves. With the cons potentially outweighing the pros, both Arena and VIVUS have found that sales are not booming as they had anticipated. Though an increase in education among doctors, patients, and pharmacists may improve the sales rate for the available drugs, the research completed on grizzly bears may eventually turn the current method of obesity treatment on its head.

Thanks, Mother Nature
The pharmaceutical industry has plenty of new opportunities at its door as more researchers turn their attention to the curious health benefits enjoyed naturally by animals all over the globe. With more research into these predispositions, humans could one day have an answer to any number of health problems. But for now, the companies at the forefront of such research can be sure that they have a certain animalistic advantage over their competitors.