A Potential Game Changer For Pharma R&D

The ghost of ‘Patent Cliff’ has been haunting the ‘Big Pharma’ since quite some time. This situation has been further aggravated by cost containment pressures of various Governments both in the developed and the emerging markets together with contentious issues on Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).

The ‘dream run’ that the innovator companies enjoyed in launching patented products so frequently and making many those blockbuster drugs of billions of dollars, is no longer a reality.

According to the findings of ‘Pharmaceutical R&D returns performance’ by Deloitte and Thomson Reuters of December 2012, the R&D Internal Rate of Return (IRR) of leading pharmaceutical companies had fallen to 7.2 percent in 2012 from 7.7 percent in 2011.

Many would, therefore, tend to believe that the paradigm is changing significantly. The new paradigm in the brand new millennium throws some obnoxious challenges, including some related to IPR, triggering a process of churning in the global pharma industry. Some astute CEOs of ‘Big Pharma’, having a deep introspection, are bracing for restructuring, not just in the business processes, but also in the process of organizational behavior, mindset, ethics and values. Unfortunately, there are many who seem to believe that this giant wheel of change can be put on the reverse gear again with might.

A new PPP initiative in pharma research:

This trying situation calls for collaborative initiatives to achieve both knowledge and cost synergies for a quantum leap in harnessing R&D output.

One such big laudable initiative has come to the fore recently in this arena. Having experienced something like the ‘law of diminishing return’ in pursuit of high resource intensive R&D projects aimed at critical disease areas such as Alzheimer’s, 10 big global pharma majors reportedly decided in February 2014 to team up with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) of the United States in a ‘game changing’ initiative to identify disease-related molecules and biological processes that could lead to future medicines.

This Public Private Partnership (PPP) for a five-year period has been named as “Accelerating Medicines Partnership (AMP)”. According to the report, this US federal government-backed initiative would hasten the discovery of new drugs in cost effective manner focusing first on Alzheimer’s disease, Type 2 diabetes, and two autoimmune disorders: rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. The group considered these four disease areas among the largest public-health threats, although the span of the project would gradually expand to other diseases depending on the initial outcome of this project.

Not the first of its kind:

AMP is not the first PPP initiative of its kind. The Biomarkers Consortium was also another initiative, not quite the same though, of a major public-private biomedical research partnership managed by the Foundation for the NIH with broad participation from a variety of stakeholders, including government, industry, academia, patient advocacy groups and other not-for-profit private sector organizations.

Open innovation strategy of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to discover innovative drugs for malaria is yet another example, where GSK collaborated with the European Bioinformatics Institute and U.S. National Library of Medicine to make details of the molecule available to the researchers free of cost with an initial investment of US$ 8 million to set up the research facility in Spain, involving around 60 scientists from across the world to work in this facility. 

Nearer home, ‘Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD)’ project of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is a now a global platform to address the neglected tropical diseases like, tuberculosis, malaria, leishmaniasis by the best research brains of the world working together for a common cause.

Challenges in going solo:

In this context, it is worth mentioning that the CEO of Sanofi, Chris Viehbacher reportedly said in an interview on April 15, 2013 that his company “Won’t push hard to find an Alzheimer’s treatment because the science isn’t advanced enough to justify the costs to develop a drug. Therefore, Sanofi definitely won’t commit major resources seeking to discover an Alzheimer’s therapy.” He further stated, “I think we have to do a lot more basic science work to understand what’s going on. We really, at best, partially understand the cause of the disease. It’s hard to come up with meaningful targets.”

The above report also mentioned that the first Alzheimer’s drugs, should they prove successful, would lead to a market worth US$ 20 billion as estimated in 2012.

Long desired OSDD model:

The new AMP R&D model in the United States seems to have derived its impetus from the “open-source” wave that has swept the software industry. Keeping that spirit unchanged, in this particular ‘open source’ model too, the participants would share all scientific findings with the public and anyone would be able to use these results freely for their own research initiatives.

The collaborators of this PPP project are expected to gain a better understanding of how each disease type works, and thereafter could make use of that collaborative knowledge to discover appropriate new molecules for the target disease areas.

AMP is also expected to arrive at methods to measure a disease progression and its response to treatment much more precisely. This will enable the pharma participants getting more targets right and early, thereby reducing the high cost of failures. Just to cite an example, there have been reportedly 101 failures since 1998 in late-stage clinical trials by Pfizer, J&J and Elan Corp.

Commendable initiative in the uncharted frontier:

The ‘open source’ AMP initiative of ‘Big Pharma’ in the uncharted frontier is indeed very unusual, as the innovative drug companies are believed to be not just quite secretive about the science that they are engaged in, but also near obsessive in pursuing and clinging-on to the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) through patents for each innovative steps related to potential new drugs.

It is worth noting that like any OSDD model, this PPP agreement also denies the participating players from using any discovery for their own drug research up until the project makes all data public on that discovery.

However, as soon as the project results will be made public, fierce competition is expected all around to develop money-spinning winning drugs.

Participating companies:

Ten pharma companies participating in AMP are reportedly, AbbVie, Biogen Idec, Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly, Merck & Co., Pfizer, Sanofi and Takeda. It is good to find within the participants some staunch business rivals. According to a report, a number of foundations, including the American Diabetes Association and the Alzheimer’s Association have also agreed to get involved in the project.

Some key non-participants:

For various different reasons some key pharma majors, such as, Amgen, Roche and AstraZeneca have decided not to participate in AMP.

AMP project and cost:

AMP reportedly has reportedly articulated its intent to: “Map molecular paths that each disease follows and to identify key points that could be targets for treatment. In Type 2 diabetes, for instance, researchers hope to catalog the genetic changes that raise or lower a person’s risk for developing the disease. It also will seek novel methods to measure each disease’s course while assessing if a potential drug is working. Being able to measure a disease’s progress in that way, could speed drug development by raising a company’s confidence that an experimental drug is working, or let it more quickly end a project if a drug isn’t working.”

The participating companies and the NIH have jointly agreed that the AMP would put together a research system on cost sharing basis by pooling the brightest minds who are experts on each disease, along with the best drug discovery laboratories, relevant data and samples from clinical trials to decipher the diseases in ways, which none of these pharma players has been able to achieve just yet on its own.

To achieve all these, the total cost has been estimated at roughly just US$ 230 million, as compared to US$135 billion that the global drug industry claims to spend in a year on R&D.

This should also be seen in context of a study of December 2012 carried out by the Office of Health Economics (OHE), UK with a grant from AstraZeneca, which estimated that the cost of developing new medicine has risen by ten times from US$100 million in the 1970s to as high as US$ 1.9 billion in 2011.

As a head honcho of a global pharma biggie had put it earlier, a large part of these R&D expenses are the costs of failure, as stated above.

Criticism:

As usual, criticism followed even for this path-breaking project. Critics have already started questioning the rationale of the choice of the above four disease areas, with an exception perhaps for Alzheimer’s and wondered whether the participating players are making use of the federal fund to push hard the envelope of their respective commercial intents.

Another new collaborative approach: 

In another recently announced collaborative initiative, though not of the same kind, where Merck & Co has reportedly entered three separate collaboration agreements to evaluate an immunotherapy cancer treatment that is part of a promising new class of experimental drugs that unleash the body’s immune system to target cancer cells.

Conclusion:

There could still be some hiccups in the process of effective implementation of the AMP project. Hope, all these, if any, will be amicably sorted out by the participants of stature for the benefits of all.

Be that as it may, ‘open source’ model of drug discovery, as believed by many, would be most appropriate in the current scenario to improve not only profit, but also to promote more innovative approaches in the drug discovery process.

On May 12, 2011, in an International Seminar held in New Delhi, the former President of India Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam highlighted the need for the scientists, researchers and academics to get effectively engaged in ‘open source’ philosophy by pooling talent, patents, knowledge and resources for specific R&D initiatives from across the world for newer and innovative drugs.

According to available reports, one of the key advantages of the ‘open source’ model would be substantial reduction in the high cost of failures of R&D projects, which coupled with significant saving in time would immensely reduce ‘mind-to-market’ span of innovative drugs in various disease areas, making these medicines affordable to many more patients.

Thus, PPP initiatives in pharmaceutical R&D, such as AMP, are expected to have immense potential to create a win-win situation for all stakeholders, harvesting substantial benefits both for the pharmaceutical innovators and the patients, across the world.

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

 

 

 

 

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