Monday, March 7, 2011

Just How Does One Find New Drugs?

Daniel Cressy, in an informative brief news item in Nature (subscription required), tells us something that most readers of this blog either knew or suspected--that the current drug industry research model for discovering new medications is largely a bust. The industry apparently realizes it too, as Pfizer announces a $1.5B cut in its 2012 R&D budget, and closes a major research facility in the UK.

But what's the answer? After apparently working hard to shift research funding out of academia and into the private sector, the industry may be deciding that academic centers are in fact the very best place to discover promising new molecules. Presumably, according to Cressy, the industry is quite right that it can do very effectively and efficiently what the academics can do only slowly and ploddingly--clinical trials to demonstrate the effectiveness of drugs that have shown promise in Phase I trials. But it should stop trying to do those Phase I trials themselves, or the painstaking basic work leading up to them, and let the academic centers do that heavy lifting, with the companies later swooping in to buy up rights to the promising results.

Cressy reports that this is what the companies now do with drugs for so-called orphan diseases, and basically it is a matter of extending the orphan-disease model to their operations as a whole. The big problem now looming, Cressy concludes, is that ideally everyone involved wants somebody else to pay for this whole process; and academic research is unlikely to produce the hoped-for gains unless both governments and industry are willing to pony up.

Cressy may have offered us a good analysis of cutting-edge thinking about drug R&D, but he totally ignores any issues relating to conflicts of interest. He talks about the possibilities of "long-term partnerships" between drug companies and academic centers, without indicating what these partnherships would look like and how academic values are to be maintained if the industry piper is calling the tune. One promising development, however, is the apparent realization among some in industry that proprietary secrecy works against scientific discovery. Cressy cites Patrick Vallance, senior VP for medicines development at GlaxoSmithKline in London, as a proponent of "open innovation," putting potential molecular structures into the public domain and inviting academics to have a go at taking them to the next level.

Cressy D. "Traditional Drug-Discovery Model Ripe for Reform." Nature 471:17-18, 3 March 2011.

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