Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Who is to blame?

Merv Turner, the chief strategy officer at Merck & Co. apparently blames research failure for the woes of the pharma industry, according to Scott Hensley at ScienceInsider.


This caught my eye, got my heart rate up, and had me reaching for my cranky pants. Well done.

On the other hand, hasn't big pharma been telling us, like forever, that the reason prescription drugs are so expensive is that they need to recoup for the buckets and bundles of money lost pursuing failed drugs that never come to market. And not because they are greedy capitalists?

(Pharma, being much like any blockbuster driven industry: the film industry, the music industry, in which most products brought to market lose money and you count on the big hits cover those losses and help you make a modest profit.)

It's not easy to find a compound for manufacture that can be safely ingested by anyone that also effectively cures a specific ill without causing a whole slew of others.

That aside, isn't the course of most research and innovation fraught with failure? If you were to cost for NIH grants the ratio of successful to failed experiments, how would those numbers look? I wonder. The numbers might be worse considering all the questions out there to be asked. On the other hand, the numbers might be better because you don't have to worry about efficacy or toxicity in humans on top of everything else.

The thing is, research is a process for seeking answers. You don't know the answers when you get started. And you don't know what pitfalls you will encounter in the process. It's risky. It's discovery. You set sail for India and end up in South America. You set out for the Louisiana Purchase and end up walking in circles through your own backyard, sometimes for years.

That's why most people would prefer to pursue a degree in English or an MBA.

It's unclear what Merv Turner said next in his talk. There are a variety of ways to proceed. To identify the worst costs and look for ways to minimize them is wise. To restructure your research priorities with the goal of avoiding failure, seems not as wise.


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