The Price of Innovation in the Pharmaceutical Industry
If you feed a camel less and less every day, you save a great deal of money. But then the camel dies. This, according to chemistry professor Paul J. Reider, is the current story of research and development in the pharmaceutical industry. CEOs of pharmaceutical companies, in their attempts to save money, deprive the industry of the innovation necessary for its survival.
Reider speaks from firsthand experience. He came to Princeton in 2008 after serving as Vice President of Chemical Research and Head of Chemistry at Amgen. Before that, Reider was Vice President of Process Chemistry at Merck.
Reider believes that a major problem with today’s large pharmaceutical companies is that they copy existing drugs, modifying molecules to treat non-life threatening conditions like erectile dysfunction rather than addressing more pressing issues like antibiotic resistance.
Targeting conditions for which drugs already exist is less risky than tackling untreated illnesses; whereas redundant projects have already-validated mechanisms and structures, developing a drug for a condition with few or no existing drugs usually requires identifying a unique pathway to target, finding molecules that inhibit that pathway, modifying those molecules to make them more effective and then subjecting the potential drugs to rigorous safety trials in multiple species. A molecule can fail at any stage of this process, often after years of financial and time investment.
Reider attributes the pharmaceutical industry’s conservative, short-term goals to pressures on CEOs to deliver immediate results.
Reider attributes the pharmaceutical industry’s conservative, short-term goals to pressures on CEOs to deliver immediate results. CEOs in the pharmaceutical industry typically have five years to prove themselves to stockholders, but discovering and approving a drug usually takes about fifteen years. How then, Reider asks, do you solve a fifteen-year timeline project when you have a five-year vision? The answer: “You don’t. They do short-term things.”
Although Reider believes the pharmaceutical industry has lost its way, making financial rather than ethical judgments when choosing which diseases to address, he thinks the industry is acting more ethically as of late. He also emphasizes the role of universities in encouraging and contributing to this ethical drug discovery. In Reider’s opinion, the goal of academic research is to discover basic things. Such an outlook encourages innovation, which can lead to the incidental discovery of seminal drugs.
An example of pure research with enormous practical implications is that of Princeton Professor of Organic Chemistry emeritus Edward “Ted” Taylor. Dr. Taylor’s fascination with heterocyclic ring structures found in the pigment of butterfly wings led to the discovery of the drug Alimta, an incredibly potent antitumor agent that has been largely successful in treating cancer patients
Although Reider considers Dr. Taylor’s discovery a fortunate consequence of intellectual curiosity, he believes that certain circumstances warrant a university’s direct involvement in drug discovery. “If others have not recognized societal demands, then a university can lead the way,” he says. One such demand is for antibiotics in the face of increasing bacterial resistance. Because effective pills diminish their own sale, new antibiotics, though dearly needed, are generally not considered profitable by the pharmaceutical industry. According to Reider, universities should exercise their academic freedom to discover such molecules.
…there is always a champion, someone who brought [the drug] forward.
Reider sees Princeton students as future “key decision makers” in the pharmaceutical industry, and his course “Drug Discovery in the Genomics Era” aims to teach them the importance of making ethical choices when it comes to drug research and development. The course covers the entire process of drug discovery and approval, and frequent guest speakers lecture on drugs they have personally discovered. Almost all the successful projects they discuss were nearly terminated by management, but “there is always a champion, someone who brought [the drug] forward.” Reider hopes that Princeton graduates will be these champions in the pharmaceutical industry, facilitating the discovery of risky but crucial drugs.