I do a lot of talking around here about how the general public doesn't really have a good idea of what goes on inside a drug company. But a conversation with a colleague has put me to thinking that this might be largely our own fault.
Consider the public face that our industry projects. Look at the press releases and the advertisements - what's the impression that you get? That there is a defined process for discovering drugs, for one thing, and what's more, that we are the master of it. Now, I know that we don't always send out that message. There are attempts to tell people about how many compounds have to be made, how many projects end up failing. But for the most part, we don't press-release that stuff.
No, the press releases are for the investors, and for them, we want to project that we're productive, confident, resourceful. . .in short, that we've got things under control. The last thing Wall Street wants to hear about is that you don't always know which drug targets are the right ones to work on, that you're not quite sure of the best way to prosecute them, and that (despite continuing efforts) these conditions look to obtain for quite a while to come.
And this attitude is one of the things that seeps out into the general public consciousness. That, I think, is why you get people who are convinced that we could cure a lot of these diseases, but that we just don't - you know, for all sorts of evil and profitable reasons. They've bought into our hype. If we haven't cured the common cold, that must be because we make a lot more money selling people stuff for it, not because antiviral drug development is flippin' difficult. (Especially for something like the common cold, but that's another story).
Now, to some extent, there is a defined process for discovering drugs - well, several defined processes. It's just that it doesn't work all that well, not on the absolute scale. No one could look at clinical failure rates of around 90% and say that we've got everything covered. Weirdly, that's one of the things that gives me hope for the industry, that even small improvements would make a big difference. What if only 80% of all the compounds we took into the clinic crashed and burned? That would be great! It would double our success rate!
But when I mention that 90% problem to people outside the drug industry, they usually have no idea. All they hear about are the successes. Perhaps it would do us some good to mention the failures once in a while?