A recent research report reveals, though the pharmaceutical companies in the United States since mid 2000 have spent over US$ 50 billion every year to discover new drugs, they have very rarely been able to invent something, which can be called significant improvement over already existing ones.
As per available reports, from the year 2000 to 2010, the US-FDA, on an average, approved just 24 new drugs per year. This number is a sharp decline from the same of 1990, when on an average 31 new drugs were approved per year.
These studies throw open some important questions to ponder:
- What is then the real issue with pharma innovation?
- Is it declining quality or quantity (number)?
- What impacts the patients more?
Quantity vs quality of innovation:
A recent paper explored whether declining numbers of New Molecular Entities (NMEs), approved in the United States (US) each year, is the best measure of pharmaceutical “innovation.”
Thus, studying in detail the NME approvals in the US during 1987 to 2011, the authors proposed the following three distinct subcategories of NMEs:
This classification was aimed at providing more nuanced and informative insights into underlying trends.
The paper established that trends in NME approvals were largely driven by ‘Addition-to-class’, or “Me too,” drug approvals. However, the good news is that ‘First-in-class’ approvals remained fairly steady over the study period.
Thus I reckon, there should be much greater focus with higher resource deployments for more of ‘First-in-class’ drugs research and development.
To achieve this objective with requisite wherewithal, there will be a need to drastically cut down massive R&D expenditures on “Me-too” types of so called ‘innovative’ drugs. Such drugs, carrying exorbitant price tags, creating a financial burden to the payers, could perhaps help increasing the number of innovations, but certainly not the quality of innovations to meet important unmet needs of patients in a cost effective manner.
In 2010, the healthcare journal Prescire rated 97 new drugs or new indications. Only 4 of these provided any therapeutic advantage over the available existing drugs. Interestingly, 19 others (1 in 5) were approved despite having more harms than benefits.
According to another analysis, “About 1 in 6 new products had more harms than benefits, while more than half of all new products provided no advantages over existing options.”
Further, a different article published in Nature Reviews indicated, “doctors were more likely to rate drugs more than a decade old as transformative.”
Decline in the quality of innovation:
In this context, Dr Mark Olfson of Columbia University and statistician Steven Marcus of the University of Pennsylvania have reportedly established as follows:
“By the 1980s new drugs were less than four times better; by the 1990s, twice as good, and by the 2000s just 36 percent better than a placebo. Since older drugs were much superior to placebo and newer ones only slightly so, that means older drugs were generally more effective than newer ones.”
While even in earlier years, newer patented drugs on an average used to be 4.5 times more effective, as compared to placebo.
The winds of change?
As a result, under the new ‘Affordable Care Act’ of President Obama, “comparative effectiveness research” by an independent research institute could well conclude that older drugs or even cheaper generic equivalents are better than the high priced patented ones, which create fortunes for the innovator pharmaceutical companies at the cost of patients and payers.
The above initiate in ‘Obamacare’, if and when fructifies, will indeed hit the ‘Me-too’ type of drug innovators, especially in the United States, very hard. Nevertheless, is a music to the ear for the private health insurance companies and the patients at large.
A ray of hope?
‘Comparative drug effectiveness analysis’, as stated above, could eventually lead to replacement of newer high priced ‘me-too’ patented drugs by older relatively low priced generic equivalents, at least, for reimbursements.
This will, no doubt, lead to huge profit erosion of the big pharmaceutical players. Hence, extensive lobbying by industry groups in top gear, against this ‘patient-centric’ proposal, is currently on, .
As the new federal healthcare law will find its roots in America, despite strong opposition from the powerful and influential pharma lobby groups, a ray of hope is now faintly seen in otherwise blatantly exploitative and rather cruel drug pricing environment.
Where hype is the key driver:
Despite enormous hype, being created and spearheaded by the Big pharma, on the ‘essentiality’ of most stringent Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) regime in a country with patent laws blatantly in favor of commercial considerations, to enjoy a monopolistic marketing climate with pricing freedom, breakthrough pharma innovations are now indeed rather difficult to come by, as we shall deliberate below.
Reasons for decline:
Many experts believe that the following reasons, among many others, have attributed to the decline in the quality of pharmaceutical R&D output:
- Most important drug discoveries for mankind have already been made or in other words, the low hanging fruits of pharma R&D have already been plucked. Now not so easy and rather difficult drug targets are remaining.
- In the last decade, most of pharma R&D efforts were reportedly concentrated mainly in four major disease areas: central nervous system, cancer, cardiovascular and infectious diseases.
- There is a need now to focus more on poorly understood and more complex therapeutic areas such as, autoimmune diseases or complex diseases related immune system of the body, to meet greater unmet needs of patients.
- Clinical trial volunteers are now more difficult to recruit and treat.
- More stringent regulatory requirements for clinical trials with studies using much larger number of patients, making the clinical drug development process very expensive.
Could it be worse for Big Pharma?
The evolving situation, though very early in the day now, has the potential to turn much worse for the big pharma and good for the patients, if some key changes take place.
Many industry analysts, across the world, feel that ‘liberal’ patent laws are responsible for acceptance of minor advances over the existing products as patentable with 20 years of market exclusivity.
Thereafter, another ‘liberal’ minded drug regulatory framework allows the pharma players to market such ‘not-so-innovative patented medicines’ aggressively, enabling them to amass astronomical profits in no time at the cost of patients’ interests and payors’ financial burden , as happened in the United States and many other countries recently.
To avoid such trivial innovations the law and policy makers in the industrialized countries may well ponder as follows:
1. Align the country’s ‘Patents Act’ with similar to what Indian law makers had formulated in 2005 to avoid minor and ‘evergreening’ types of patents under section 3(d) of the Act.
2. The clinical research data must establish that the new drugs offer significantly more tangible benefits to the patients than the existing ones.
Denial of patentability for ‘me-too’ innovations and their subsequent regulatory approvals would significantly reduce the drug treatment cost with virtually no adverse impacts on patients, across the world.
If such measures are taken by the developed countries of the world and also the emerging markets, the Big Pharma would be compelled to change their respective business models, making ailing patients of varying financial status, color and creed central to their respective strategic ideation processes.
Otherwise, it is highly unlikely that anything will change for the patients from what we are all experiencing today, at least in the near to medium term.
A possible pathway:
Highly conflicting interests of Big pharma and the patients, should get resolved sooner than later and that again for the interest of both.
Thus, to find a meaningful and generally acceptable solution to this issue, there is a dire need for a much wider global debate. The deliberations, at the same time, should include possibilities of finding ways to avoid huge wasteful expenditures on pharmaceutical R&D for developing new products that offer no significant benefits to the patients over the existing ones. On the contrary, such products burden them with exorbitant incremental drug treatment costs,
The motions of the debate could well be in the following lines:
1. ‘Should United States amend its patent laws by categorically stating that a mere “discovery” of a “new form” of a “known substance” that does not have properties resulting in significant improvement in clinical efficacy, will not be patentable?
2. Shouldn’t the clinical research data must always establish that the new drugs offer significantly more tangible benefits to the patients than already available cheaper equivalents?
The positive outcome of this global debate, if fructifies, will indeed be considered as a paradigm shift in the new world order for all, hopefully.
Despite all these developments, a recent report indicated that the heads of seventeen industry associations of the United States wrote a letter to President Obama complaining, among others, India’s patents regime. This includes the most powerful, yet equally controversial, pharmaceutical lobby group of America.
The letter alleged that the recent policy decisions in India undermine internationally recognized Intellectual Property (IP) standards, which are “jeopardizing domestic jobs” in America and are unacceptable to them.
Though the details of issues were not highlighted in the letter, One concern it specifically expressed that the defeat of Novartis on the Glivec case that challenged Section 3(d) of the Patents Act of India has raised the bar on what can be considered a true innovation for the grant of patent in India.
Though this judgment of the apex court of India was widely acclaimed even globally, American Trade Association Lobby Groups seem to project exactly the opposite, reportedly, driven solely by profit motives of their members and shorn of patients’ interests
Interestingly, an article published in The New England Journal of Medicine, July 17, 2013 also states as follows:
“A patent law that treats incremental innovation and significant innovation in the same way, encourages companies to prioritize less important research over more important research.”
A diametrically opposite viewpoint:
Another school of thought leaders opine, ‘me too’ innovations will continue to remain alive and well. This will happen, even if such new products are starved of oxygen by ‘the tightening purse strings of the eventual customers’. These innovations are sustained by the stronger imperative to avoid clinical failures and to play relatively safe in the space of expensive R&D investments.
They feel that pharma players will continue to focus on to leaner drug discovery and development models to have healthier late-stage product pipelines of such types. In tandem, by cutting costs even more aggressively, as we witness today, they will find space to keep the level of risk optimal for delivering real innovation, when the time comes.
This type of business model, the experts feel is based on the belief that it is far better to acquire a product with very little innovation ensuring that it can hardly fail to be approved by the regulator. Thereafter, the concerned players may figure out ways of how payors will actually pay for it, rather than focusing primarily on acquiring a genuinely innovative ‘First-in-class’ product and then discover it has ‘feet of clay’.
For example, AstraZeneca reportedly invested a little over US$1 billion in two such products in one month: another LABA combination from Pearl Therapeutics and a prescription ‘Fish Oil’ capsule from Omthera Pharmaceuticals.
Be that as it may, a large number of experts do opine, especially in the light of the above letter of the American Trade Associations that the verdict of the Honorable Supreme Court of India on the Glivec case, though does not serve the business interests of pharma MNCs, definitely signals the triumph of justice over ruthless patient exploitations. It also vindicates that this particular rule of law, as enacted by the Indian Parliament, is indeed for the best interest of the patients of India at large.
This verdict could well be construed as a huge lesson to learn and implement by other like minded countries, across the world.
Having a glimpse at the pharmaceutical innovations, which are often laced by crafty hypes created by expensive PR Agencies of the pharma lobby groups, the global thought leaders do tend to believe, rather strongly, that Section 3(d) of the Patents Act of India would encourage more ‘First-in-class’ innovations, in the long run, benefiting all.
Such a provision, if implemented by many countries, could also help saving significant wasteful expenditures towards ‘Me-too’ type pharma R&D, favorably impacting billions of lives, across the world.
That said, the question keeps haunting – ‘Sans Hype, Quo Vadis Pharma Innovation?
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.