GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Pfizer, Eli Lilly & Co. and several other large drugmakers will partner with the U.S. government in a $230 million effort to identify new approaches to treat Alzheimer’s, diabetes, lupus and arthritis.

Data generated from the work will be made public for other scientists to use, a move that the U.S. National Institutes of Health called groundbreaking. The targeted diseases are some of the most prevalent conditions among Americans, costing the nation billions of dollars in treatment and lost productivity.

The venture may be particularly important in Alzheimer’s research. Since 1998, there have been more than 100 attempts to develop a treatment, and all have failed. The last two years have featured setbacks by both Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. Sanofi Chief Executive Officer Chris Viehbacher has said his company won’t pursue therapies there because the science isn’t advanced enough to justify the risks and cost to develop a drug.

“Currently, we are investing a great deal of money and time in avenues with high failure rates, while patients and their families wait,” the NIH director, Francis Collins, said in a statement today. “All sectors of the biomedical enterprise agree that new approaches are sorely needed.”

More than 5 million Americans suffer with Alzheimer’s disease, and the number is expected to triple by 2050. The only drugs approved for the condition ease symptoms for a few months while the debilitating brain disease rampages on. Still, they generate more than $5 billion annually.

Biomarker Research

Research coordinated by the NIH will include collecting tissue samples from thousands of patients to look for common “biomarkers” that might be good targets for new drugs, the NIH statement said. The first projects are expected to last three to five years, and may lead to collaborations on other diseases if the research is successful, the agency said.

The coordinated effort “rallies scientific key players of the innovation ecosystem in a more unified way,” said Mikael Dolsten, president of worldwide research and development for New York-based Pfizer, in a statement.

Rupert Vessey, senior vice president at Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based Merck & Co., identified new, innovative ways to develop drugs as the most critical health challenge facing the industry. The collaboration “will be important to unravelling the mysteries of the diseases that cause suffering for individuals and are a burden to our society,” he said in an e- mailed statement.

Collective Effort

Other companies involved are AbbVie Inc., Biogen Idec Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi and Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will also participate, as well as nonprofit advocacy groups representing patients suffering from the diseases, the government said.

The NIH is the largest source of funding for biomedical research in the world, with an annual budget of more than $30 billion. Much of that money is consumed by basic research into human biology and research into major causes of death, including cancer and infectious diseases.

The agency expects to spend about $1.1 billion on diabetes this year; $562 million on arthritis; $260 million on arthritis and $109 million on lupus. The agency will spend $3.1 billion researching HIV and AIDS, by comparison, the most of any single disease.

[GSK operates its North American headquarters in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Merck and Pfizer also have large operations in N.C.]