Failure's an orphan, sure enough. We get to hear about the really big clinical failures in the drug industry, the Vanlevs and the torcetrapibs, because they hit the greasy chute just when they're bounding up on the stage, while all the spotlights are on them. But there are plenty of other projects that just sort of evaporate, with no one wishing to call attention to them.
That's well illustrated in the recent case of GlaxoSmithKline. The company updated its research pipeline in its annual report last week, and analysts noticed that eleven drugs had disappeared from clinical trials since the last listing. No press releases were sent out at the time, no conference calls were made. None of the drugs were, individually, expected to be huge parts of GSK's future by themselves - but losing nearly a dozen compounds from the clinic has to hurt.
Among them were a beta-3 agonist for diabetes (solabegron) and a glycoside-based thrombin inhibitor (odiparcil). I wouldn't have been putting a lot of money down on either of them, myself - not that I have any information about the compounds in particular, just that those mechanisms have been graveyards for drug development. Counting the number of beta-3 agonists or thrombin inhibitor projects that have been reported over the years would be a nasty job, and none of them (so far) have made it to market.
There were also several oncology compounds missing, and that's no huge surprise, either. Cancer drugs have the highest failure rates in the clinic - the last estimate I saw was around 95%, which is the sort of number that makes you want to thoughtfully look out the window for a while.
I almost wish that more were made of these failures. It would be painful for the companies involved, but it would give people a better idea of how painful drug discovery can be. I had a friend who was always worried about flying anywhere, and I kept wanting to pop in every few seconds, all day long, with news of yet another plane that had landed safely in Chicago, Atlanta, LAX or wherever, just to get the point across. In the drug industry, though, we have the reverse situation - almost everything we try to put into the air crashes. There should be some way to get the point across that most of our drug candidates never make it, taking all their development money down with them.