Fear and trembling in the drug companies

By Derek Lowe

The current economic slump couldn't have come at a worse time for the drug industry, which has been staggering through a prolonged slump in the number of good drugs brought to market (and in the number that stay there, come to think of it). But many of the companies are still rich in cash, for now, and the pressure to do something with it is bringing all kinds of stupid ideas out.

The Pfizer/Wyeth merger is one such (and I inveighed against it here). If you don't trust me on the subject, you could look to Sir James Black (discoverer of well more than one person's share of useful drugs, Nobel in Medicine in 1988). His reaction, when asked by the Financial Times about the merger idea, was "Will they never learn?"

Now we have news that Sanofi-Aventis, already the product of a large deal a few years ago, is looking to do a big acquisition. And Merck says that they can't rule anything out - a shocking statement from a company that has (along with Eli Lilly) traditionally stayed away from the huge-takeover idea. (Of course, Lilly did buy Imclone last year - you have to wonder what they think about today's news that adding that company's flagship drug, Erbitux, to a widely used chemotherapy cocktail actually makes people die off faster).

Meanwhile, Roche is trying to buy the rest of Genentech, and doing it in a fashion that's sure to lose friends and antagonize people - especially the people that you'd think they'd want to keep. The company has spent a lot of time telling Genentech (and the rest of the world) that they don't want to destroy that company's culture, that they want to keep its productive scientists working away, and so on. But now they've announced a hostile offer, which has everyone thinking that they were just after all those Avastin revenues all along, scientific staff be damned.

No, we've got a lot of worried people in this industry. And fear is not making us any smarter.

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

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/02/fear-and-trembling-in-the-drug-companies/360/