Pharma's Fake Innovation Crisis?

Two medical professors contend that the pharmaceutical industry is really suffering from a drive to make only marginal improvements to existing drugs.

Aug 13, 2012
Bob Grant

Gone are the days of blockbuster drugs and miraculous cures for intractable diseases. For years, the pharmaceutical industry has been struggling to develop new compounds to battle the diseases that plague humankind. But Big Pharma's "innovation crisis" is a myth, and the real problem with the industry lies in incentives to spend millions of dollars on making drugs that are only slightly better than existing products, according to a new analysis published in BMJ.

Donald Light, a professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and Joel Lexchin, who teaches and studies public health policy at Canada's York University, write that the oft-touted phenomenon of slowed innovation and stagnant drug discovery in the pharmaceutical industry is an untruth sown by pharma execs among members of the media and lawmakers in a bid to attract more R&D funding.

"This is the real innovation crisis," Light and Lexchin write—"pharmaceutical research and development turns out mostly minor variations on existing drugs, and most new drugs are not superior on clinical measures."

But organic chemist and longtime pharma employee Derek Lowe cries foul over Light and Lexchin's claims on his In the Pipeline blog. "We tell everyone else how hard it is to discover drugs, but when we're sure that there are no reporters or politicians around, we high-five each other at how successful our deception has been," Lowe writes. "Because that's our secret, according to Light and Lexchin. It's apparently not any harder to find something new and worthwhile, but we'd rather just sit on our rears and crank out 'me-too' medications for the big bucks."

Lowe claims that pharma's troubles are clearly illustrated in recent spates of layoffs and consolidations, which have cost thousands of jobs in the industry. Lowe goes on to explain the development of drugs that seem to represent only moderate advances as a frustrating reality of modern drug development. "The reason that some new drugs make only small advances on existing therapies is not because we like it that way, and it's especially not because we planned it that way," he writes. "This happens because we try to make big advances, and we fail. Then we take what we can get."

(Hat tip to GenomeWeb.)