This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week, sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which aims to raise awareness of the challenges faced by the millions of Americans who live with a mental health condition. This year’s theme, “Cure Stigma,” was chosen to promote compassion, empathy and understanding for those afflicted.
In recognition of the great work being done to treat mental illness, we’re sharing the story of Doug Williamson, MD, the chief medical officer and vice president of US Medical at Lundbeck, who has a long career researching treatments for a variety of mental health conditions.
Daily Discoveries. Dr. Doug Williamson, like many researchers in the biopharmaceutical industry, did not set out to work in drug discovery; instead, he found his way there over time. Growing up with dreams of becoming an astronaut, Dr. Williamson’s early training was in psychiatry and he worked as a practicing psychiatrist, where “the strange new worlds I’d be exploring were the ones inside our own head,” he notes.
“When you treat brain disorders, you can literally change the trajectory of a person’s life, forever,” he says. “That’s incredibly rewarding, but over the course of a career, you maybe treat one or two thousand patients. I quickly realized if you join the biopharmaceutical industry, you get the opportunity to help hundreds of thousands of patients through the new treatments that you can develop.”
Today, Dr. Williamson researches treatments for central nervous system disorders (CNS), including depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Research Snapshot. The CNS is composed of the brain and spinal cord and thus responsible in some way for nearly every physiological process. Scientists are only beginning to understand the complexities of the brain and the various diseases that can afflict it, including the conditions that Dr. Williamson and his team research. Each has a different pathway, and by gaining a greater understanding of what triggers a disease, Dr. Williamson hopes to create new treatments that can mitigate adverse effects or even prevent a condition from occurring in the first place.
The Driving Force. Patients are what keep Dr. Williamson pushing forward, despite the high rate of setbacks that occur in biomedical research.
“To see a new treatment be made available to patients, and to know that patients are now going to be able to take it, and to understand the difference that it’s going to make in their lives – that’s incredibly rewarding,” he says.
Challenges, Chance and Looking Forward. Excited by recent advances in brain imaging and genetics, Dr. Williamson says the future of CNS research is bright.
"Today, we’re so close to making huge breakthroughs in disorders like schizophrenia, depression, but also disorders like Parkinson’s, where we haven’t really had truly major breakthroughs for 40-50 years,” he says.
Still, he readily admits that biopharmaceutical research is challenging, and it can sometimes be disappointing when a potential treatment does not lead to a new medicine. Even so, “failure” is not a word he would use to describe these instances.
“You’ve always learned something,” he says. “You’ve learned that perhaps that wasn’t the right drug target or perhaps it wasn’t the right patient population. And with that learning, you can move forward and advance the program further.”