Are Big Pharma Mergers Good for New Drugs?

Merck and Schering-Plough, Wyeth and Pfizer. . .well, OK, everybody and Pfizer. There have been plenty of big mergers over the last few years in the drug industry, and they've always been accompanied by talk of economies of scale, critical mass, synergies, incredible opportunities that will come from merging two wonderful research pipelines and terrific development organizations. It's enough to make you think that these things are good ideas.

Until you look at the numbers, that is


A researcher named Bernard Munos at Eli Lilly has done that, though, and reports his results in a well-respected industry forum, Nature Reviews: Drug Discovery. The reality is much closer to the one reported by the grumbling scientists at these companies, rather than the one inhabited by the CEOs. Companies that have gone through big mergers have been underperforming the industry averages for development of new drugs, not the other way around. Shareholders should perhaps take note next time they're asked to approve another one of these deals.

In fact, one of Muno's main conclusions is that very little that drug companies have done over the last 60 years seems to have affected the underlying rate of drug discovery. That process, in fact, models best as an essentially random one, impervious to the best schemes of scientists and MBAs alike. It's possible that a number of factors have fought to a draw to make the figures come out that way, but several others have also remained static - the chances of a new molecule becoming a blockbuster, for example. One thing that hasn't stayed the same, though, is the cost of finding these drugs. Munos estimates that that's been going up at about 13% a year since the 1950s, and that trend shows no sign of slowing down.

Derek Lowe blogs from inside the drug labs at In the Pipeline.

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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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