Who Does Pharma Research?

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Derek Lowe has something to say to the folks who claim that all the "real" research on pharmaceuticals is done in universities, and drug companies just steal the ideas and monetize them:


Allow me to rant for a bit, because I saw yet another argument the other day that the big drug companies don't do any research, no, it's all done at universities with public funds, at which point Big Pharma just swoops in and makes off with the swag. You know the stuff. Well, I would absolutely love to have the people who hold that view explain the PPAR story to me. I really would. The drug industry poured a huge amount of time and money into both basic and applied research in that area, and they did it for years. No one has to take my word for it - ask any of the academic leaders in the field if GSK or Merck, to name just two companies, managed to make any contributions.

We did it, naturally, because we expected to make a profit out of it in the end. The whole PPAR story looked like a great way to affect metabolic disorders and plenty of other diseases as well: cancer, inflammation, cardiovascular. That is, if we could just manage to understand what was going on. But we didn't. Once we all figured out that nuclear receptors were involved and got busy on drug discovery on that basis, we didn't help anyone with any diseases, and we didn't make any profits. Big piles of money actually disappeared during the process, never to be seen again. You could ask Merck about that, or GSK (post-rosiglitazone), or Lilly, or BMS, or Bayer, and plenty of other players large and small.

No one hears about these things.

 We're understandably reluctant to go on about our failures in this industry, but the side effect is that people who aren't paying attention end up thinking that we don't have any. Nothing could be more mistaken. And they aren't failures to come up with a catchy slogan or to find a good color scheme for the packaging - they're failures back at the actual science, where reality meets our ideas about it, and likely as not beats them down to the floor.

Honestly, I don't understand where these they-don't-do-any-research folks get off. Look at the patent filings. Look at the open literature. Where on earth do you think all those molecules come from, all those research programs to fill up all those servers? There are whole scientific journals that wouldn't exist if it weren't for a steady stream of failed research projects. Where's it all coming from?

There is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that a modern economy drives innovation.  People tend to think in terms of a "eureka!" moment--a blockbuster idea or product that springs full blown from the head of Zeus, and then exists forever.  But in fact, an enormous amount of productivity improvement is driven by tiny, continuous, incremental change.  This is true of treating childhood cancer, it is true of drug discovery, and it is true of Toyotas.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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