When Pharma Gets Along [Smiley Face]

Juliet Preston
May 29, 2019 · 4 min read

If you work in the life science and healthcare space, you probably get some interesting community feedback. I recently had an Uber driver liken our field to the mafia — highlighting the way companies conspire together to raise prices for everyday folk.

This was his overarching impression of the pharmaceutical industry and, unfortunately, he’s not alone. In a recent U.S. consumer survey, data analytics company Innoplexus found just 5.2% of respondents had a “very positive” view of pharma companies. Some 72% believe they care more about making money than they do about helping patients.

It’s true: Pharma are the bad guys (see: Martin Shrkeli). But they’re also the good guys (and gals) and everything in between. It’s just that the former get the bulk of the media coverage. So below are some counterexamples. Specifically, three fields where companies by-and-large put patients, progress, and science above their own immediate gains.

Alzheimer’s Disease

This is an unusual example of community, collaboration, and compassion in a field that — theoretically — could be worth billions and billions of dollars annually. Alzheimer’s touches almost everyone and as our population ages, the disease burden will inevitably worsen.

With this backdrop, teams of academic and industry scientists have been toiling for decades, trying to develop a drug that can change the course of the disease. They’ve come at it from many different angles. But at the end of the day, everyone fails.

Perhaps that’s why there is collaboration? While reporting on Alzheimer’s drug development, I spoke to a lot of different players ranging from the head of Merck’s neurology program to several mid-sized biotechs and even startups. Many of the scientists had worked on Alzheimer’s for decades. There was a lot of networking and movement between teams as the programs waxed and waned. Across the board, everyone echoed the same perspective that they were in this together. Decades on, it’s still us versus the disease — everyone has been humbled by the clinical trial failures.

Antimicrobials

If you’re not familiar with this area of drug development — it’s a tough one. The unmet need is enormous, as more and more bacteria are becoming resistant to the existing drugs. This has created a desperate need for new therapies., but one-by-one, Big Pharma has abandoned the field. What gives?

The science is challenging, but it’s the lack of economic incentives that have crippled R&D. If a novel antimicrobial drug reaches the market, it will be used sparingly and as a last resort to preserve its efficacy. This concept, known as “antimicrobial stewardship,” is critical for medicine, but it’s a poison pill for sales and thus, early-stage investment.

In this environment, the remaining companies — often startups — have bound together. They’re scrappy and innovative with their business models. Organizations like CARB-X have sprung up, pooling private and non-profit resources to fund early-stage research into novel therapeutic classes. They’re unifying the field, creating alliances, and data sharing initiatives.

It’s a tight-knit community of people that can’t turn a blind eye to the urgent threat of multi-drug resistant infections. They know they’re the last line of defense and that there’s more than enough room for multiple companies to succeed — should that scenario ever play out.

Artificial Intelligence

This field shares one key commonality with the two earlier examples: The market opportunity far exceeds the number of solutions that the companies are coming forward with. There’s no need to fight over the scraps; they can all work with Big Pharma and dynamic biotechs, helping advance different programs or applying their technology to different stages of drug discovery and development. Many of the original players understand this, which frees them from the secrecy that often clouds disruptive startups.

Recursion Pharmaceuticals and Numerate are a great example of this. I recently sat down with Brandon Allgood, co-founder and CTO of the latter, ahead of his keynote address at CPhI North America. He spoke a lot about the broader field and shared the spotlight with other companies, like his friends at Recursion. Allgood was a founding member of the Alliance for Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare (AAIH), which works to advance the technology and its ability to improve human health while overcoming the major challenges along the way. Many of the members also actively educate the industry about AI, helping them separate the possibilities from the hype.

Rather than advancing their own causes, companies in AI are maximizing its potential in healthcare and subscribing to the policy that a rising tide lifts all boats. And at the end of the day, the success of artificial intelligence companies can’t be readily duplicated. They’re the product of years and years of interdisciplinary work by computer scientists, engineers, biologists, and more. Some of the early adopters have also amassed proprietary databases, which fuel their specific applications.

So What?

I highlight these examples because they so rarely get called out. As a society, we tend to dwell on the outliers that abuse the public and their patients’ trust. There are just as many examples of companies that are doing the opposite — developing new diagnostics for infectious diseases in Africa for which there is no market, developing therapeutics for orphan diseases, or working towards more affordable biologics, such as biosimilars. The three cases above are some examples I’ve happened upon, but I know there are and will be more.

Photo: Getty Images

Written by

Juliet is director of content @ CG Life, an integrated life science & healthcare marketing agency with offices in Chicago and San Diego. Visit: www.cglife.com

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