Worst case scenario – Pharma stops funding research

Since my first involvement in pharmaceutical research in 1989 I have seen a shift, and in over 20 years its probably appeared to happen quite slowly but add it together and the direction is clear. Several recent interactions with different groups, companies, foundations etc. have made me envision an absolutely worst case scenario. I can imagine a future when zero research is performed in drug companies, repeat zero.

In 1989 I did my sandwich year (internship) in a small French pharma company (A) in the UK. They were not allowed to do animal experiments on site. So this was my first exposure to see how a close collaboration with a university in London enabled drug disposition studies, for which we then received the excreta for drug disposition studies. By today’s standards this was outsourcing.

Then I did a postdoc at a major US drug company (B) from 1996 -1998 in drug disposition. At that time I was not aware of any of the work in our department being outsourced. The same when I moved to another big pharma (C) in 1999. Not aware of anything outsourced, we did all drug-drug interaction and animal work in house and of course chemistry. By the time I moved back to the previous pharma (B) from 1999-2001 still there was nothing really happening outside apart from academic collaborations and clinical studies and occasional syntheses. Biotechs were the only folks really using CROs to get their tox and chemistry done. I then move to a small biotech 2002-2004 (D) and half the chemistry was outsourced to China. From what I understand from this point every pharma then started to outsource large chunks of chemistry and this has been followed by biology in some cases. Other companies just simply built sites in China. My observations of companies A-D show a clear break point. In the last decade we have also seen a shift to more smaller companies basically taking assets and outsourcing everything – true virtual pharma. Big pharma still has a large investment in research (more of it is happening outside the US for example), but with more and more examples of virtual pharmas, and big companies buying up these assets – for which they have not really had to directly do the research.. You can see where it is going perhaps in future.

Cut to now. We have large and small research foundations funding research (from my own experiences), we have crowdsourcing funding research, and we have the NIH, Wellcome etc. funding research. And ultimately to get to the clinic it will require groups to partner with big pharma. So what will happen if and when pharma basically stops doing all fundamental research? Will it happen? who will it impact, e.g. lab equipment materials vendors, real estate (as there will be no need for labs), even more job cuts etc. Who will benefit from this shift? Perhaps those nimble enough to see the writing on the wall.

Its seems pretty fatalistic. But take the massive pharma investment away and you are left with Foundations and the NIH. Competition for funds/ grants will be brutal. Small foundations and crowdsourcing are not going to be able to take up the slack. Companies will be looking for assets that are ready with nothing much to do but push into the clinic. They will not be doing much chemistry (if they work on small molecules) or biology. Everything will be virtual.

You will notice I have not mentioned computers to this point. I think their role will be tracking predominantly an ecosystem of thousands of nano-pharma (small 1-2 person companies set up around a single asset), thousands of diseases and mining patient registries to understand how they can license therapeutics that will target the diseases. These nano-pharmas will operate on a shoestring pushing their assets (probably acquired from academia and foundations) from one CRO to another until they have proof that their asset has value to the next company up on the food chain. These might be micro-pharmas companies (with 10-50 people) who have portfolios of assets and specialize in refining the data package and deal making with the next step – big pharma (who by now have scaled down to 500-1000 employees) specialize in clinical trials and marketing.

This is not utopia and this will not happen tomorrow, but the shift has been underway for a decade.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>