So yesterday over lunch me and some colleagues got into a discussion about why scientific productivity in the pharmaceutical industry has been perilously declining over the last two decades. What happened to the golden 80s when not just the "Merck University" but other companies produced academic-style high quality research and published regularly in the top journals? We hit on some of the usual factors. Maybe readers can think of more.
1. Attack of the MBAs: Sure, we can all benefit from MBAs but in the 80s places like Merck used to be led by people with excellent scientific backgrounds, sometimes exceptional ones. Many were hand-picked from top academic institutions. These days we see mostly lawyers and pure MBAs occupying the top management slots. Not having a scientific background definitely causes them to empathize less with the long hairs.
2. Technology for its own sake: In the 90s many potentially important technologies like HTS and combi chem were introduced. However people have a tendency to worship technology for its own sake and many have fallen in love with these innovations to the extent that they want to use them everywhere and think of them as cures for most important problems. Every technology works best when it occupies its own place in the hierarchy of methodologies and approaches, and where a good understanding of its limitations wisely prevents its over-application. This does not seem to have really happened with things like HTS or combi chem.
3. The passion of the structuralists: At the other end of the science-averse managers are the chemical purists who are so bent on "rules" for generating leadlike and druglike molecules that they have forgotten the original purpose of a drug. The Lipinskians apply Lipinski's rules (which were meant to be guidelines anyway) to the extent that they trump everything else. Lipinski himself never meant these rules to be absolute constraints.
What is remarkable is that we already knew that about 50% of drugs are derived from natural products which are about as un-Lipinskian as you can imagine. In fact many drugs are so un-Lipinskian as to defy imagination. I remember the first time I saw the structure of Metformin, essentially methyl guanidine, and almost fell off my chair. I couldn't have imagined in my wildest dreams that this molecule could be "druglike", let alone of the biggest selling drugs in the world. I will always remember Metformin as the granddaddy of rejoinders to all these rules.
The zealous application of rules means that we forget the only two essential features of any good drug; efficacy and safety, essentially pharmacology. If a drug displays good pharmacology, its structure could resemble a piece of coal for all I know. In the end the pharmacology and toxicity are all that really matter.
4. It's the science stupid: In the 80s there were four Nobel Prize winners on the technical staff of Bell Labs. Now the entire physics division of the iconic research outfit boasts a dozen or so scientists in all. What happened to Bell Labs has happened to most pharmaceutical companies. The high respect that basic science once enjoyed has now been accorded to other things like quarterly profits, CEO careers and the pleasure of stock holders. What is even more lamentable is the apparent mentality that doing good science and making profits are somehow independent of each other; the great pharmaceutical companies in the 80s like Merck clearly proved otherwise.
Part of the drive toward only short term profits and the resulting obsession with mergers and acquisitions has clearly arose from the so-called blockbuster model. If a candidate is not foreseen to be making a billion dollars or more, dump it overboard. Gone are the days when a molecule was pursued as an interesting therapy that would validate some interesting science or biochemical process, irrespective of its projected market value. Again, companies in the past have proved that you can pursue therapeutic molecules for their own sake and still reap healthy profits. Profits seem to be like that electron in the famous double slit experiment; if you don't worry about them, they will come to you. But start obsessing about them too much and you will watch them gradually fade away like that mystical interference pattern.
We ended our discussion wondering what it's going to take in the end for big pharma to start truly investing in academic style basic science? The next public outcry that emerges from drug-resistant strains of TB killing millions because the drugs which could have fought them were never discovered in the current business model? It could be too late then.