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February 2, 2009
Several readers pointed out the comments of Paul Stoffels, head of R&D at Johnson & Johnson, as reported in the Wall Street Journal’s Health Blog. He’s boosting some sort of open-pharma research model, although what he means by that isn’t too clear:
“All simple diseases have been solved,” Stoffels said. “The next-generation drugs, therapies, are much more complex… You need much more information and science than what you can get out of your own internal labs.” . . . The future of the drug industry, Stoffels told the Health Blog, is “building networks where together with a number of different groups you come up with solutions to solve different medical needs.”
There are a couple of things worth noting in there. The comment about all simple diseases having been solved, for example – people in the industry make that point (I’ve made it myself), but is it true? Forced to choose, I’d say that it’s more true than not, but I’d also point out that even the “simple” diseases aren’t so simple, in retrospect, and that we should think hard before we start trying to put together any list of diseases we’ve “solved”. I’m trying hard to think of some right now, and I have to say, the list slows down once you get past polio and smallpox. We’ve been able to improve a lot of bad situations, but “solved” is a strong word. Blood pressure? Heart disease? Definitely helped, helped a great deal, but “solved”? I don’t think, for example, that insulin solves Type I diabetes.
As for the network thing, this doesn’t seem that revolutionary to me. Drug companies have been bringing in all sorts of collaborators to help out with development. The fallacy in this is, though, thinking that the information you need to make a great drug is always out there. To me, that’s one of the hardest parts about drug discovery: the way that some of the most important factors are still black boxes. What “different groups” can you bring in that will predict that failure in two-year rodent tox, which hits you in Phase III? That said, one important benefit of getting different eyes onto a project is to break up group thinking, and that goes for every stage of a project. Those things that Everybody Knows can really come back to bite you – in advanced stages, you get things like Pfizer’s billion-dollar forecast for their inhaled insulin disaster, Exubera.
The comments to the post make the usual analogies to open-source software development. That breaks down, though, when you consider that the resources needed to write code are a lot easier to distribute than the resources needed to discover drugs. NMR machines, animal labs, and compound repositories are a lot harder to scatter through a thousand basements. . .
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