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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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In the Pipeline

« More Pfizer Explosion Details | Main | The Apatosaurus. The Spruce Goose. The Pyramids »

July 15, 2002

The Irish Elk. The Mongol Empire. And Other Things That Got Too Big to Work Well.

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Posted by Derek

More thoughts on the Pfizer/Pharmacia deal: One thing that drug execs talk about during a merger, besides "synergy" (hard to get that one out with a straight face any more) and "economies of scale" is how the new megacompany will be able to pursue more lines of research than before. That's taken, rightly, to be a good thing on the whole - the more projects you can afford to run (properly staffed,) the more chances you have of something panning out.

But as far as I can tell, there can be a drift away from that principle as time goes on, similar to what happens when a big multiplex cinema gets built in a town. At first, the owners talk about how this will bring movies to town that otherwise would never make it, and how they'll keep a screen or two for small films or art-house fare. But come back in a couple of years, and they have the latest summer special-effects vehicle showing every single hour of the day on four screens.

Likewise, the temptation for a newly enlarged drug company is to go on with the usual process of picking which projects look good, and then staff them out the wazoo with all the new manpower. You can end up running the same number of projects, with a small army on each one. That can help, up to a point. But some of the delays, twists and turns of a drug development project aren't sensitive to headcount, and this keeps the timelines from scaling the way you'd want them to. Pretty soon, you're back in the same shape you were before, just on a grander scale. Things can end up like the Red Queen's race in Alice, where you're running as hard as you can just to stay in the same place.

What's hard to grasp is that the density of research ideas doesn't scale too well, either. Your new, larger company isn't automatically going to have twice the number of good projects going. Odds are excellent that the two research organizations were working, in many areas, on the same darn stuff. To avoid the trap of fewer, bigger projects, you're going to have to put bets down on some that wouldn't have quite made the grade before. Most of these aren't going to work, even now. But a few of them are, and the big organizations are the ones that have the resources to see those sorts of projects through.

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