Johnson & Johnson said it plans to seek approvals for 11 new drugs by 2017, including a treatment for patients with depression who have failed to benefit from standard medications.
The intranasal drug, called esketamine, is closely related to a pediatric anesthetic called ketamine that has been shown in academic studies to ease symptoms rapidly in such patients, including a reduction in suicidal thoughts.
Ketamine is also the active ingredient of the mood-altering party drug known as "Special K."
J&J, which is testing its tweaked version of ketamine in mid-stage trials, on Thursday said initial findings have been promising.
Yale University researchers have described ketamine as the biggest breakthrough against depression in the past half-century, theorizing that the anesthetic helps rejuvenate connections between brain cells called synapses that have been damaged by stress and depression.
"The results have been truly remarkable," Husseini Manji, head of neuroscience at Johnson & Johnson, said of the studies conducted at Yale on ketamine.
Manji said esketamine could be very important for depressed patients who have become suicidal, because it works so quickly. "Today you basically treat people and lock them up until the drugs take effect."
The Yale research shows ketamine takes effect within hours. By contrast, standard drugs can take weeks or months to improve symptoms. But the Yale researchers have cautioned that ketamine can cause short-term psychosis if used in large doses.
J&J spokesman Greg Panico said the company's altered form of ketamine is given in small doses through an intranasal spray.
Details about the depression drug emerged on Thursday at an all-day meeting with hundreds of analysts and fund managers at J&J's headquarters in New Brunswick, New Jersey, held to discuss trends for its pharmaceuticals business.
J&J said it will also seek approvals by 2017 for drugs to treat hepatitis C, immune diseases and schizophrenia, and vaccines for flu, rabies and polio.
The company, citing industry statistics, said total global sales of prescription drugs are expected to grow 4.5 percent annually until 2017.
Peter Rabover, an analyst with Scharf Investments in Scotts Valley, California, said J&J's array of experimental drugs suggests company pharmaceutical sales will outpace the market.
"To me, it looks like they can grow 6 to 9 percent a year for the next five years," Rabover said.
Heart failure back in focus
The diversified healthcare company said it is conducting mid-stage trials of a new type of drug for heart failure, a debilitating and hard-to-treat condition in which the heart is unable to supply blood adequately to the rest of the body. The drug mimics a protein called Beta 1-Adrenergic Receptor.
J&J is wading back into the heart-failure field after the collapse of its older treatment, called Natrecor, which J&J spent billions of dollars to acquire. It became a big seller after being launched in 2001, but was virtually abandoned years later after studies questioned its safety and effectiveness.
Company prescription drugs have rebounded in the past two years following generic competition for Risperdal and J&J's Topamax epilepsy treatment.
Sales of J&J drugs rose 4 percent last year and by 10 percent in the first quarter of 2013, thanks to brisk-selling new treatments for prostate cancer, blood clots, diabetes and other diseases.
"Pharma is now J&J's most attractive segment because they have moved past patent expirations and have a large number of new products," said Jeff Jonas, an analyst with Gabelli & Co. The company's other two businesses - consumer products and medical devices - are also growing, but have been plagued by product recalls.
Company shares have jumped 26 percent so far this year, versus an 18 percent gain for the drug sector. They have been helped by enthusiasm for J&J's improving drug lineup and the steady return of recalled consumer medicines, including Tylenol, to store shelves.