Here's an article from David Shayvitz at Forbes whose title says it all: "Should a Drug Discovery Team Ever Throw in the Towel?" The easy answer to that is "Sure". The hard part, naturally, is figuring out when.
You don’t have to be an expensive management consultant to realize that it would be helpful for the industry to kill doomed projects sooner (though all have said it).
There’s just the prickly little problem of figuring out how to do this. While it’s easy to point to expensive failures and criticize organizations for not pulling the plug sooner, it’s also true that just about every successful drug faced some legitimate existential crisis along the way — at some point during its development , there was a plausible reason to kill the program, and someone had to fight like hell to keep it going.
The question at the heart of the industry’s productivity struggles is the extent to which it’s even possible to pick the winners (or the losers), and figuring out better ways of managing this risk.
He goes on to contrast two approaches to this: one where you have a small company, focused on one thing, with the idea being that the experienced people involved will (A) be very motivated to find ways to get things to work, and (B) motivated to do something else if the writing ever does show up on the wall. The people doing the work should make the call. The other approach is to divide that up: you set things up with a project team whose mandate is to keep going, one way or another, dealing with all obstacles as best they can. Above them is a management team whose job it is to stay a bit distant from the trenches, and be ready to make the call of whether the project is still viable or not.
As Shayvitz goes on to say, quite correctly, both of these approaches can work, and both of them can run off the rails. In my view, the context of each drug discovery effort is so variable that it's probably impossible to say if one of these is truly better than the other. The people involved are a big part of that variability, too, and that makes generalizing very risky.
The big risk (in my experience) with having execution and decision-making in the same hands is that projects will run on for too long. You can always come up with more analogs to try, more experiments to run, more last-ditch efforts to take a crack it. Coming up with those things is, I think, better than not coming up with them, because (as Shayvitz mentions) it's hard to think of a successful drug that hasn't come close to dying at least once during its development. Give up too easily, and nothing will ever work at all.
But it's a painful fact that not every project can work, no matter how gritty and determined the team. We're heading out into the unknown with these drug candidates, and we find out things that we didn't know were there to be found out. Sometimes there really is no way to get the selectivity you need with the compound series you've chosen - heck, sometimes there's no way to get it with any compound series you could possibly choose, although that takes a long time to become obvious. Sometimes the whole idea behind the project is flawed from the start: blocking Kinase X will not, in fact, alter the course of Disease Y. It just won't. The hypothesis was wrong. An execute-at-all-costs team will shrug off these fatal problems, or attempt to shrug them off, for as long as you give them money.
But there's another danger waiting when you split off the executive decision-makers. If those folks get too removed from the project (or projects) then their ability to make good decisions is impaired. Just as you can have a warped perspective when you're right on top of the problems, you can have one when you're far away from them, too. It's tempting to thing that Distance = Clarity, but that's not a linear function, by any means. A little distance can certainly give you a lot of perspective, but if you keep moving out, things can start fuzzing back up again without anyone realizing what's going on.
That's true even if the managers are getting reasonably accurate reports, and we all know that that's not always the case in the real world. In many large organizations, there's a Big Monthly Meeting of some sort (or at some other regular time point) where projects are supposed to be reviewed by just those decision makers. These meetings are subject to terrible infections of Dog-And-Pony-itis. People get up to the front of the room and they tell everyone how great things are going. They minimize the flaws and paper over the mistakes. It's human nature. Anyone inclined to give a more accurate picture has a chance to see how that's going to look, when all the other projects are going Just Fine and everyone's Meeting Their Goals like it says on the form. Over time (and it may not take much time at all), the meeting floats away into its own bubble of altered reality. Managers who realize this can try to counteract it by going directly to the person running the project team in the labs, closing the office door, and asking for a verbal update on how things are really going, but sometimes people are so out of it that they mistake how things are going at the Big Monthly Meeting for what's really happening.
So yes indeed, you can (as is so often the case) screw things up in both directions. That's what makes it so hard to law down the law about how to run a drug discovery project: there are several ways to succeed, and the ways to mess them up are beyond counting. My own bias? I prefer the small-company back-to-the-wall approach, of being ready to swerve hard and try anything to make a project work. But I'd only recommend applying that to projects with a big potential payoff - it seems silly to do that sort of thing for anything less. And I'd recommend having a few people watching the process, but from as close as they can get without being quite of the project team themselves. Just enough to have some objectivity. Simple, eh? Getting this all balanced out is the hard part. Well, actually, the science is the hard part, but this is the hard part that we can actually do something about.