A case for cheaper drug discovery and development

The news has been covering biotech/ pharma for the last few days and it is not a good thing, all because of Turing Pharmaceuticals decision to hike the price of their drug 5000%, which is an old antimalarial called pyrimethamine.  Not surprising the decision was met with an outcry. But looking at the basis for the decision (while I do not condone how it was done) I can see it makes some sense. Sure folks are not going to like it, but then again when there are few or no other options, Turing has total control. The previous owners of the drug could and probably should have raised its price too. What would we rather have the drug pulled from the market altogether? Unfortunately the CEO is taking the heat for the whole pharmaceutical industry as this is just one of many recent price increases. It could have been handled far better in consultation with patient groups and with far better PR. The reality is that to bring a new drug to market for Toxoplasmosis (a parasite) or for that matter virtually any disease would cost $100M’s to $1Bn if we believe the figures and would take at least a decade. If Turing or another company wanted to start now to develop an alternative they would need a significant war chest to do it, which would far exceed the $90M series A financing.

However there are ways to make drug discovery much cheaper and faster. From my own collaborative examples presented recently at a virtual symposium. It can be done and I am not afraid to say it – at least the early part of drug discovery.  Simply using data other people have published, a bit of computer modeling, test a few compounds and find leads that are already approved drugs or old clinical candidates. Yes I have over simplified but the papers should explain in more detail here and here..and for that matter others have published similarly. I think its just time people realized that we have enough data and computer power to do this on our desktop. If Turing are smart they will be doing this already and also going for one of the tropical disease or rare pediatric disease vouchers.

What I do feel needs highlighting in this excitable atmosphere is the real disparity between those rare diseases where there may really only be a handful of patients for a drug or therapy. In that case the company has no choice but to charge a hefty price to recoup costs for their R&D investment. If they are lucky to get a rare disease voucher it may only be a short term fix to offset costs, but what about longterm, will the company still be around, or for that matter the drug? We really need to get debate on this going. This is not a case of generic drugs, its about delivering drugs to a few people that can change their lives.

I think the current furor has done a very valuable service to get us to talk about what is a serious issue. The legacy big pharma’s have really missed the boat, if a Turing or other new upstart can take an asset that big pharma discarded and make money off it then its their problem. The day when a drug company developed treatments for the patient and was an ethical pharmaceutical company sadly left us in the 1960’s. The general public has to wake up and see that it is business. Turing or some other company has to make a profit, because without that there will be no research, however cheaply it can be done. Looking to big pharma for leadership in this situation is not going to work, Turing just led the way and others will follow.


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>