A reader at a large research university sends this along for comment:
"My advisor is a staunch skeptic of the value of "big pharma". He recently made a comment in a group meeting that "Merck has not discovered anything in 25 years. They don't do research, they acquire it. In fact, I don't know why they even have chemists and biologists, maybe they feel they have to..."
Well. I realize that there's a lot of good-natured sniping between industry and academia, but that kind of crosses the line, doesn't it? The first thing that I feel like saying to this professor is that Merck, which is indeed one of those Big Companies That Makes Money, presumably doesn't employ an army of expensive chemists and biologists for cosmetic reasons. So if you can't figure out why they've kept such people around for decades, perhaps there could be valid reasons that you haven't fully appreciated. It's a hypothesis worth considering, and that would be a higher-percentage move than assuming that the company must be so thickheaded that it hasn't yet figured out that it could fire everyone. That's an interesting approach to the data, sort of like trash-canning any experiment that didn't fit your original assumptions. You don't do that, though, right?
This is an especially rich comment when applied to Merck, which does as much (or more) fundamental research as anyone in the industry. If you want to talk about just going out and buying your stuff, snipe at Pfizer. But Merck is famous for digging into its own projects for years and years until they get them to work. Perhaps a look at a search for "Merck" in PubMed would illustrate the point?
Maybe the problem is that phrase "discovered anything." I've found that some university-based scientists actually take that to mean "discovered anything that would make a neat article in Cell". In the drug industry, our definition is more like "discovered something useful that no one else has done before". And "something useful" means "something that improves a person's health enough that they're willing to pay us money for it". I realize that I've introduced the monetary snake into the Garden of Pure Research, but ah, what choice do we have? They don't give out grants big enough to pay for what we do.
I'm willing to bet that you're thinking about the case of the COX-2 inhibitors. As many people have heard, Merck made quite a bit of money until recently selling one of those. The University of Rochester had a patent on the enzyme and its use as a screening tool, and sued Searle (now Pfizer). But they were trying to reach through and claim a share of the profits for the drugs found through this method (while not, last I heard, offering to soak up any of the recent losses). This suit failed, and it's worth remembering why:
As one of my readers put it, Rochester discovered a new shovel, and laid claim to any gold that might be dug up with it. That's an excellent metaphor, and I'd extend it to say that they were laying claim not just to the raw gold, but to the finished jewelry. The gap between a basic discovery and a drug is much, much wider than even well-educated people seem to realize.
I could go on, and have. But I think I'll close with an item from this morning's news wires. Merck has announced that they have successfully tested a vaccine that will likely prevent the vast majority of cervical cancers. That must have been accomplished by their idle scientists in those brief intervals between cackling with glee while they threw stacks of hundred dollar bills into the air, but I'm glad they took the time to do it. Does this, I'd very much like to know, count as a discovery? After all, vaccines have been known for a long time. Heck, cervical cancer isn't a new disease either, nor is its association with the HPV viruses. I'll bet Merck couldn't get this study published in Cell, or even PNAS. They'll have to settle for the front pages of virtually every newspaper in the world. Time to kick back for another twenty-five years!