“People hate pharma,” my Forbes colleague Matthew Herper observed recently–and at times I can understand why. There’s not much to admire about executives like Martin Shkreli, or businesses like Valeant.
But I’ve started to worry that the “pharma = evil” narrative has become so ingrained that it’s taking on a life of its own, as readers instinctively anticipate this storyline, and journalists reflexively provide it. Coverage of a recently announced innovative training collaboration between Johns Hopkins and MedImmune (a subsidiary of AstraZeneca ), for instance, focused primarily on potential conflicts of interest.
(Disclosure/reminder: I work at DNAnexus, a health data management company in Silicon Valley and Boston; our partners include universities, government agencies and private companies.)
This narrow view, however, not only fails to capture the urgent need for effective, new therapies, it overlooks entirely the vital role played by companies in translating fragile but promising scientific ideas into robust medicines for patients.
For university “discoveries to matter most,” says former UCSF Chancellor, Genentech executive and current CEO of the Gates Foundation Susan Desmond-Hellman, “they need to get to humans.”
She adds, “The easiest thing to do to avoid conflicts is to never talk to industry, never interact with industry and have nothing to do with it–and no patients would benefit from [academic] discoveries.”
Desmond-Hellmann is hardly alone; many innovative academic physicians and scientists recognize the importance and value of close private-sector relationships. As UCSF professor and serial entrepreneur Atul Butte has recently emphasized, this is “the right way to truly change the world, by going beyond writing papers.”
Companies are exquisitely focused on driving the science from research paper to marketed product–a journey that simply wouldn’t happen without the concentrated effort, broad expertise (from medicinal chemistry to data management) and significant capital resources companies bring to this process. Even so, the trek is perilous, the failure rate notoriously high.
While academic training traditionally assumes a future in academic science is the ideal outcome for students, trainees may discover a passion for some of the more translational aspects, which industry does best. It’s hard to see how broader exposure to a range of career paths and opportunities would not be in the best interest of graduate and medical students.
The concern that working with industry scientists will somehow contaminate the purity of academia is especially hard to stomach in the context of science’s ongoing reproducibility crisis, the observation that a surprising number of published scientific results don’t seem repeatable. As Robert Califf, the newly installed head of the FDA, has pointed out, on balance, “academic analyses have more major errors and are not as reproducible as industry analyses.” (Califf also pointed out issues that seem more common in industry-funded studies, including framing of the questions and comprehensiveness of the analysis.)
There is also increasing awareness that many flaws originally attributed to industry research–such as failing to report results to a designated government website and publish results in a journal–seem at least as common in academic research, suggesting these issues are more systemic.
Academics and industry researchers each tend to believe they are responsible for the heavy lifting of new medicine development, yet the truth is the process is far more difficult and daunting than either group tends to appreciate, and there’s essential work that must be done every step along the way.
Turning science into medicines is an important and worthy challenge, pursued with passion, intelligence and integrity by many physicians and scientists. New medicines do not fall easily and inevitably out of academic research, but require deliberate, painstaking development–and unreasonably resilient drug hunters able to cope with a staggeringly high failure rate.
We should encourage innovative partnerships that bridge the translational divide, and inspire more journalists to capture the value of this difficult and ambitious mission.
David Shaywitz is based in Mountain View, California. He is Chief Medical Officer at DNAnexus, a Mountain View based company and holds an adjunct appointment, Visiting Scientist, in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School.