Now, while we've been talking about how much basic research is done in industry, or how much clinical research gets done in academia, here's something that might bear on the discussion. Too much of what looks like useful clinical research on the academic side is actually wasted effort. The New York Times has been running a series called "The Forty Year War", looking at the history of the "War on Cancer", and the latest installment is on clinical trials.
It's been a problem for some time now that there aren't enough patients to go around for many cancer trials. Breast cancer is an especially problematic area, last I heard. It's high-profile, fairly high-incidence, and a lot of investigational anticancer agents are lined up to take a whack at it. So many, in fact, that there aren't enough breast cancer patients available in the US, nowhere near, and the same situation obtains in a number of other areas.
Much of this problem comes from low recruitment rates. As the Times article makes clear, only three per cent of adult cancer patients are enrolled in any kind of trial at all. Many cancer patients want to stick with the best therapy that's currently known, and don't want to add any uncertainty to what they're already dealing with. It's hard to blame them, but that does make the state of the art advance more slowly.
Another factor that may come as a surprise is that many oncology practices find that they lose money by participating in trials. The reimbursement-to-paperwork ratio doesn't always come out very well, especially for centers that don't do a lot of clinical research and haven't been able to streamline the process as much as possible. When they look at the number of patients that they can serve, given the time that's taken up, the trials start to make less sense.
Finally, and this is the least excusable factor on the list, there are many trials that really shouldn't be run at all. The Times does work in a line about how some studies by drug companies are just "designed to persuade doctors to use their drugs." My take on that is that these studies usually are designed to do that by showing that their drug actually works better, which is not such a bad thing. But note this other problem:
There are more than 6,500 cancer clinical trials seeking adult patients, according to clinicaltrials.gov, a trials registry. But many will be abandoned along the way. More than one trial in five sponsored by the National Cancer Institute failed to enroll a single subject, and only half reached the minimum needed for a meaningful result, Dr. Ramsey and his colleague John Scoggins reported in a recent review in The Oncologist.
Even worse, many that do get under way are pretty much useless, even as they suck up the few patients willing to participate. These trials tend to be small ones, at single medical centers. They may be aimed at polishing a doctor’s résumé or making a center seem at the vanguard of cancer care. But they are designed only to be “exploratory,” meaning that there are too few patients to draw conclusions or that their design is less than rigorous.
“Unfortunately, many patients who are well intentioned are in trials that really don’t advance the field very much,” said Dr. Richard Schilsky, an oncologist at the University of Chicago and immediate past president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
I don't want to dump a bucket of tar on all academic and publicly funded clinical research, because there's a lot of good stuff that goes on as well. (And remember, the publicly basic research is very valuable indeed). But the next time someone tells you about the number of clinical trials run outside of the drug industry, you might want to keep those above figures in mind.
Not all trials are created equal, not by a long shot. But the ones that we run in industry, from what I can see, tend to have a better chance of relevance. That's partly because we're spending our own money on them, and with a goal of finding drugs that people will spend money on in turn. It focuses one's efforts. It's not like we never waste money in this business, but I'm very much willing to bet that we waste it less often than happens with public funds. Companies trying to get an agent through the clinic tend not to set up meaningless trials just to make everyone's resume look better. That I can tell you.