How can we develop new drugs and get them to people more quickly? At the MRC’s Open Council meeting last week, a lot of the discussion focused on how the changing environment for the pharmaceutical industry means we need new models for drug discovery, and much closer working between academic and industry researchers. Katherine Nightingale rounds up the discussion.
There was a time when pharmaceutical companies produced new drugs at a steady rate. They invested in the research and development (R&D) of drugs, occasionally producing ‘blockbusters’ which could treat many people, and making enough profit to inject back into R&D. It took around 10–15 years to develop a drug and, while potential drugs often failed to jump the hurdles of clinical trials, there were enough in the pipeline to keep things going.
But, as we heard at the Open Council meeting last week, now that’s simply not the case: fewer and fewer new drugs are being developed, and it’s taking longer and getting more expensive to produce them. The patents have run out on many blockbuster drugs, meaning that pharma companies generate less revenue to plough back into R&D. And as we learn more about disease, the treatments that are produced are more specific to particular groups of patients, meaning that the markets for individual drugs are smaller.
So what are we to do? The general consensus at the meeting was to throw out the old model and introduce a new one based on ‘open innovation’, in which pharmaceutical companies work more with external partners to share both the risks and rewards of drug development. An example of this, which MRC Chief Executive Sir John Savill mentioned in his presentation, is the MRC’s collaboration with AstraZeneca to provide UK academic researchers access to 22 AstraZeneca compounds.
Speed is another important factor. No longer can we wait 10 years to see a drug fail. As George Freeman MP, Government Adviser on Life Sciences, said “We want the UK to be the place to come to find out if your drug is going to succeed or fail.”
Part of this is ensuring that, rather than there just being a ‘push’ from companies and researchers to produce drugs, there is also a ‘pull’ from the NHS to take them up. New drugs or diagnostic tests are no use to people if they don’t become part of what’s on offer to the patient. A huge part of this is creating an environment within the NHS where doctors who are also researchers can thrive, so that innovation becomes a part of NHS culture. The MRC’s role in this, as John Savill said, is to fund training fellowships for clinician researchers.
Getting researchers from academic and industry environments to work together is also vital. Jeff Kipling, Director of R&D Policy at GlaxoSmithKline, said the company is keen for young academics to come in and see what industry is all about.
Jim Smith, Director of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research — which will move to the Crick Institute in 2015 — said there are plans to promote entrepreneurship at the institute.
Crick researchers will also be encouraged to work with people from industry to get across the idea that people from pharmaceutical companies are “are clever, bright, interesting, normal people, something that academic researchers don’t always understand. And also to get across the idea that Crick scientists are normal people too!”
The MRC’s Council holds an open meeting each year to give some of our local and regional stakeholders the opportunity to meet and put questions to panellists and members of our Council and Management Board.