Horror Stories and High Tech (A Bitter Pill–Part 3)
Posted by Richard Conniff on April 8, 2012
So each new negotiation starts from scratch and can entail months or even years of “significant legal and travel expense, all before a single collection is made,” says Miller. The uncertainty of these negotiations “may be more of an impediment to pharmaceutical companies,” he suggests, “than the actual commitment to share potential profits.”
Horror stories abound: In the late 1980s, a U.S. National Cancer Institute team was working in the West African nation of Cameroon on a compound that looked like the cure for AIDs. “This was a plant that was still eating research dollars at an enormous rate, it wasn’t making any money, and, man, the Cameroonians were all wanting to buy themselves new Mercedes.” Though the researchers had an access agreement with one government ministry, “about five other ministries stood up and said, ‘Oh you should have signed that with us.’” Then they bickered. Even if the compound had proved to be the cure (it turned out to be too toxic), “I’m not sure we would have been able to work on it,” says Miller, “because the Cameroonians put such tight clamps on it.”
But drug companies also botched their bioprospecting efforts through a combination of financial and technological hubris, critics say. The financial side is a familiar story of senior executives focusing on quarterly growth at the expense of science. Getting a new drug to market, says John C. Vederas, a medicinal chemist at the University of Alberta, “requires a lot of creativity and intellectual input and study and time and money”—on average ten years and $1 billion worth of research. Boosting revenues by buying up other large drug companies can look like a quicker way to keep Wall Street happy. And with each round of consolidation, company leaders “basically layoff employees, close research and development units that have a long record of being successful, and buy technologies that look promising from smaller companies.”
Beginning in the late 1980s, big drug companies also increasingly diverted their research dollars from natural products to combinatorial chemistry and high-throughput screening. That is, they turned to automated methods to bang out large libraries of closely related synthetic compounds. Then they sorted out the biologically active ones by running these compounds through a device the size of a hardcover book, with 1536 little plastic wells, each containing a different bioassay. It’s a “brute force method,” says Vederas, and can take a million tries to produce one promising lead. But the numbers may still seem to work because automation makes those million tries relatively cheap.
Natural products didn’t fit the new technology.
(to be continued)