Do drug discovery and drug marketing belong in the same company or not? That question’s been asked in several forms, but two MIT professors are taking it about as far as it can go. Stan Finkelstein and Peter Temin have a book coming out (“Reasonable Rx: Solving the Drug Price Crisis”) which proposes decoupling the two by force.
By analogy to the way the electrical power industry was divided into generation and distribution sectors, they propose splitting up the pharmaceutical business into drug discovery firms and drug marketing firms. But wait, there’s more: they also would like to have an “independent, public, non-profit Drug Development Corporation” formed to act as an intermediary between the two:
“It is a two-level program in which scientists and other experts would recommend to decision-makers which kinds of drugs to fund the most. This would insulate development decisions from the political winds," (Finkelstein) said.
The MIT press release also talks up the other putative benefits of this plan, such as how it would “insulate drug development from the blockbuster mentality, which drives companies to invest in discovering a billion-dollar drug to offset their costs”. There’s a lot to talk about in this idea, but here are some of my first impressions:
1. The electric power analogy is probably specious. Generating electricity is, for the most part, a sure thing. If you build a big coal-fired generating plant, which we most certainly know how to do, it will generate electricity for you. And its output will be proportional to how fast the turbines spin. Research is most profoundly different, as many executives from other industries have found to their sorrow. You can turn the crank like crazy and have hardly anything come out the other end at all – ask Pfizer – and that’s because we do not have a very clear idea of how to discover drugs.
Another problem is that electricity is fungible. The electric power coming from one plant is exactly the same as that coming from another, and can be pooled and distributed in exactly the same way. Every drug, however, is different. The electric power industry would be rather changed in appearance if some kilowatts were ten times as profitable as the others, but only for a few years after the generating plant came on line, or if particular kilowatts were only of benefit to certain homes or businesses and had to be routed there specifically.
2. Where are these experts, exactly? I have an instinctive distrust of plans that call for a board of dispassionate technocrats to step in and do things that the market is supposedly doing by itself. It’s not that such things absolutely can’t work, but my default belief is that they won’t work as well as their planners hope. Finkelstein and Termin’s “DDC” proposal is just the sort of thing I worry about. I can see establishing something to make sure that less immediately profitable diseases get R&D directed to them, but running the whole industry like an NIH grant review board sound like a recipe for disaster.
3. To some extent, the industry is already divided in the manner proposed. But it's not done through review boards, it's done through business dealings. Many small firms don't have the resources to develop their own drug candidates, so they shop them to larger firms who can handle the clinical, regulatory, and marketing aspects of the process. This goes on all the time. It's been proposed (many times) that one or more large companies might shut their own research down completely and serve as a clearinghouse for the smaller ones in just this way, but no one has been willing to take the plunge. My guess is that there aren't enough good ideas out there for sale to keep a company going without having some of its own research in the game; I feel sure that the numbers have been run on this idea more than once.
Of course, these deals are made on the basis of who will make money, rather than how much society will benefit. But you'd be surprised at how often those two can overlap.
Where do the costs go? I suppose I'll have to read the book to get the details, but I'm not sure how money is supposed to be saved here. The cost of developing drugs doesn't look like it'll be changed much, since Temin and Finkelstein aren't coming in with any insights into human biochemistry or any new ways for us to predict efficacy or side effects. Profits, however, would surely be reduced: the the DDC that they propose would seem to exist to recommend that less profitable drugs be developed, for the good of society, rather than the ones that companies believe that they can make the most money from.
I note that the press release makes much of climate change and globalization, probably because in many circles these days you can't be taken seriously unless you mention those somewhere. This is done in the context of tropical diseases possibly making inroads into the US and other industrialized countries. But if that were to happen, research on these diseases would become much more profitable - which I realize is a crude way of looking at it, but the market doesn't have to be pretty to work. And I think the process would be slow enough to fit the timelines for drug discovery as it's practiced today - an example would be the burst of work on avian influenza in the last few years. A sudden epidemic would be bad news indeed, and might well catch the industry flat-footed, but that's going to be hard to avoid under any drug development regime.