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Susannah Murphy is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry. In her story, Susannah discusses the challenges of drug development in psychiatry and explains why industry collaborations are essential for finding new treatments for mental disorders.

Susannah Murphy alongside the quote "Collaborations are critical to ensuring our research has maximal impact in terms of treatment development, and ultimately improving outcomes for patients with mental disorders."

Please tell us about your field and the biggest challenge within the field? 

Drug development in psychiatry is notoriously challenging. Over the past decades, there has been slow progress finding new treatments for many common mental disorders, despite significant clinical need. There has been real concern within the field of psychiatry that the challenges of new treatment development for mental disorders are a disincentive for pharmaceutical industry, who may choose to invest in alternative ‘lower risk’ disease areas. This has the potential to stymie progress towards the improved treatments that are so desperately needed for common psychiatric disorders, such as depression, schizophrenia and cognitive impairment.  

You mentioned “slow progress”, is there a particular reason for it. How can this be addressed? 

One of the major reasons for slow progress in psychiatric treatment development is that animal models often do not give us accurate predictions about what the effects of new treatments will be on human symptoms. It is therefore critical to have ways of testing new treatments in humans early in their development. Here in Oxford, we have a strong track record of research to understand the cognitive neuroscience of core processes that are relevant to psychiatric disorder, including emotional processing, cognition, reward and stress, and developing models of these processes that can be used to test new treatments.    

What has been your route to working in collaboration with industry  

My research is focussed on developing and validating human models of depression that are sensitive to the effects of antidepressant treatments. These include cognitive tasks that tap into core psychological processes known to be important to the development and maintenance of depression, and neuroimaging paradigms that tap into the underlying neural circuitry. These kinds of models can be used to screen putative new antidepressant treatments early in development in order to test what their potential clinical effects might be. Along with a team of fantastic colleagues here in Oxford, I have worked with a number of pharmaceutical companies who see the value in using these models in their drug development pipelines to inform early decision making about the likely clinical profile of novel compounds in development.   

Are you part of any consortium or networks  

Yes, I am! In order to facilitate academic-industry joint working, we have established the NIHR Oxford Health Experimental Medicine and Industry Partnership (EMIP). This is a network of companies who we work in partnership with to ensure that the scientific advances made by researchers here in Oxford can be rapidly deployed into drug development pipelines. EMIP was launched in 2021 with an Academic Industry Meeting Day (AIMday®- platform developed by Uppsala University), which brought together 86 Oxford academics with 53 industry representatives for a day of roundtable discussions on challenges currently faced within psychiatric drug development.   

Amazing! Can you tell us about any upcoming initiatives that further these collaborative efforts? 

Later this year, we will work alongside the Business Partnership Office to host a Mental Health conference in Oxford, which will again be a valuable opportunity to facilitate networking, discussion and knowledge exchange with industry. This conference will showcase the significant advances made by Oxford neuroscience researchers in understanding the core processes associated with psychiatric disorders and ensure that we effectively collaborate with industry.   

In one sentence – what motivates you to collaborate with your industry partners? 

Such collaborations are critical to ensuring our research has maximal impact in terms of treatment development and ultimately improving outcomes for patients with mental disorders.