The Drug Industry's Problem(s)

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Those of us in the drug industry don't really know what to expect from the Obama administration (although we're pretty sure that we're probably not going to like a lot of what we're likely to get). But it's not like things were going wonderfully during the Bush years, either, to be honest. Decisions on Medicare pricing, liability law, reimportation and other issues can all have their effects, but none of them will change the underlying problems that have put the business where it is.


All of those issues affect drug prices, but you have to have something to sell before you can talk about its price. The real problem is that we in the drug industry haven't been discovering enough useful new drugs. As someone who works in the drug discovery labs, I'm just as guilty as everyone else: twenty years in the labs, and I've never worked on anything that's on a pharmacy shelf. If you want to know why your prescriptions cost what they do, blame me.

It's not like much that comes from Washington will solve our problems, either, even assuming that the administration wants to try. The research productivity drought isn't going to be ended by any fiscal or regulatory initiatives, because those aren't what got us here. The causes are complicated, and not everyone agrees on all of them, but I think that most of us in the labs would agree that (for one thing) we've used up a lot of the (relatively) easy drug targets. We don't even have a good idea of what causes many of the diseases that we'd most like to tackle.

For another thing, we've learned a lot more about potential problems with drug candidates, but not so much about how to fix them. Aspirin, acetominophen, and penicillin wouldn't have made it through a modern drug discovery effort. We'd have found their problems early (intestinal bleeding, liver toxicity, and anaphylactic shock, in that order), and either killed them off or spent years trying to get around them. Some of the things our modern safety assays turn up are unfixable show-stoppers, others are just warning lights that put the fear into companies who decide that they'd rather spend the money on something that looks cleaner.

These are all medical, chemical, and biological problems - no legislation is going to make them go away. I'm afraid that we're just going to have to learn our way out of them. And that has already been a slow, expensive process, for which no end is in sight. The best we can hope for is that things don't get worse while we stagger our way through.

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Derek Lowe

Derek Lowe is a drug discovery chemist with 20 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, which is still very much his day job. He's worked on projects targeted at Alzheimer's, cancer, diabetes, infectious diseases, and other areas, but like most discovery scientists in the business, he has yet to produce a marketed drug. Explaining how and why this happens is what led to the launch of his blog, "In the Pipeline", in 2002, and the explaining continues. . .
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