In past years, around this time I’ve often done a look back at the previous year in the drug industry. I hope that no one will be disappointed if I scuttle that tradition, because honestly, I have no desire whatsoever to relive what drug research went through in 2008. It may have been the toughest year for industry scientists in the modern era – everyone I know struggles to find a comparison.
I’d rather spend my energies on 2009. Let’s just stipulate that 2008 was, on balance, horrendous: what does that tell us? How did we end up in this position, and how can we avoid more of the same? There’s a lot of arguing room in those questions, but I think that we can agree that the proximate cause is that we’re not coming up with enough good drugs. 2008, for all its ugliness, was a handful of good products away from being a decent year. Why were we short that handful?
You have to go back some years to answer a question like that, given the industry’s lead time. The projects that were begun in the mid-to-late 1990s are clearly not coming through in the way that everyone had hoped. Is it that our attrition rate has gone up, or have we just not taken enough things to the clinic, or some of each?
Let’s think about that first problem, which certainly seems to be real enough. Is it that the easy targets have all been worked over, leaving us with only the tough ones? I don’t think that’s the whole explanation, although that’s certainly part of it. Still, even some of the big drugs from years past wouldn’t have made it through our current structures. So are the hurdles set too high during development – that is, do we know too much about potential problems, without having learned a corresponding amount about how to fix them? That’s got to be a big factor, which leads to a New Year’s resolution: try to spend as much time fixing problems as finding them. That’s a hard one to live up to, but it’s a goal to work toward.
And if we’re going to talk about that latter number, we’re going to have to cut through the often artificial “projects advanced” figures that circulate inside companies. Anyone who’s been around this business has seen some long shots (and some outright losers) officially pushed forward just to make some year-end target. Now, long shots are fine. To a good approximation, everything we do is a long shot. And everything has to go to the clinic eventually (or die) – but we have to make sure that we’re not just checking boxes. So that’s another resolution: spend less time kidding ourselves.
Of course, there’s a flip side to the number of compounds going to the clinic. Could it be that we’re being too cautious, because we have too many potential worries (those high hurdles mentioned above)? Should we be taking more things forward? Well, that’s an expensive proposition, the way things are set up now. So here’s another hard-to-live-up-to resolution: find ways to go to the clinic without betting our shirts every time. That’s been a big focus the last few years (biomarkers, etc.), but we need every idea and technique we can think of (microdosing? Simulations, even?). The cost of getting answers in humans is getting too high for us to try out as many ideas as we need to.
And here's a less macro-scale resolution, which I plan to start putting into practice immediately: don't let fear run your research. Try some things that you aren't sure about. Take some chances. Put down some bets. I've got several that I've let sit in the should-I-do-this limbo for too long, and I'm going to do something about that. Join me?