Finding Good Drugs is Harder than it Sounds

At The Atlantic Megan McArdle examines drug development. Demonstrating once again how capable she is, Megan quotes my favorite insider source Derek Lowe:

As NIH director, Elias Zerhouni was a great champion of “translational research” that would get academics into the business of trying to make drugs rather than doing basic research like identifying drug targets. Now that he’s the head of R&D at Sanofi Aventis, he seems to be realizing that discovering drugs is harder than it sounds:

When he arrived at Sanofi, “I thought the solution would be simple,” Zerhouni said at a recent R&D press event attended by the Health Blog. He thought the answer to the company’s R&D woes was to make it more creative and more nimble, like a small biotech.

But he realized that small biotechs are no more successful than large drug makers at coming up with new drugs. “At the end of the day, there’s a gap in translation,” he said. . .

At Sanofi, the goal now is to strive for “open innovation,” which involves looking for new research and ideas both internally and externally — for example, at universities and hospitals. In addition, the company is focusing on first understanding a disease and then figuring out what tools might be effective in treating it, rather than identifying a potential tool first and then looking for a disease area in which it could be helpful.

Derek Lowe adds:

With a lot of these things, if you’re going to first really understand them, you could have a couple of decades’ wait on your hands, and that’s if things go well. More likely, you’ll end up doing what we’ve been doing: taking your best shot with what’s known at the moment and hoping that you got something right. Which leads us to the success rates we have now.

On the other hand, maybe Zerhouni should just call up Marcia Angell or Donald Light, so that they can set him straight on the real costs of drug R&D. Why should we listen to a former head of the NIH who’s now running a major industrial research department, when we can go to the folks who really know what they’re talking about, right? And I’d also like to know what he thinks of Francis Collins’ plan for a new NIH translational research institute, too, but we may not get to hear about that. . .

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