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Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: Takeaways from Partnering For Cures 2012

December 20, 2012
The chorus to Kanye West’s 2007 chart-topper Stronger can teach us volumes about speeding drug development.

Harder:  Drug development is challenging.  It takes over 10 years and more than $1 billon to bring a therapy through the product pipeline, from the research lab to clinical trials to FDA approval to prescription to patients suffering from the disease. The FDA approved over 30 innovative drugs last year, including more than 10 new treatments for cancer—a good year by industry standards.  But we can do better.

With that mindset, stakeholders from across the industry convened in New York City last week for the Partnering For Cures conference, hosted by FasterCures (and the Milken Institute).  This meeting of the minds drew biopharma executives, FDA leadership, academic researchers, philanthropists, and patient advocacy groups eager to work towards increasing the efficiency, speed, and safety of traditional drug development.

Big pharma companies, the traditional bastions of innovation, have seen diminishing returns from their internal R&D spending and have turned to acquisitions and spending cuts to drive innovation over the past decade.  Speaking on a panel titled Beyond Business as Usual: Disrupting the biopharma business model, Ben Shapiro of PureTech Ventures claimed that the big corporate culture of large biopharmaceutical companies often runs counter to innovation and can drive out entrepreneurs and talented scientists.  Healthcare-focused venture capital firms are also struggling to raise funds, presenting difficulties for smaller biopharma companies trying to commercialize their own discoveries.

Better:  The conference was buzzing with agreement that the industry can do a better job all around, from translating basic research into usable therapies to communicating across sectors to making clinical trials more patient-friendly.

Many speakers noted that the academic research community can do a better job listening to patients and families and should work to translate their real-world experiences with diseases and treatments into usable clinical data.  A presentation from Jill Wood, President of rare disease foundation Jonah’s Just Begun and co-founder of virtual biotech company Phoenix Nest, underscored the crucial role parents and patients can play in disease research, oftentimes despite their lack of scientific training.  Parents who find their children facing an incurable disease often can become the most impassioned scientific crusaders.   For every John Crowley who receives national acclaim, thousands of other parents scour academic message boards, travel to far-flung laboratories, and raise funds in the hopes of developing treatments in time.

Ms. Wood noted that family advocates can run into difficulty competing for SBIR and NIH grants, and that better communication between reviewers and applicants could help demystify the application process for people outside traditional science.

Faster:  Social media was frequently referenced as a source of hope for the drug development industry.  From its power to connect patient support networks around the world to its use in real-time data collection and crowd-funding research, social media is helping redefine and accelerate the paradigm of health care.  Big pharma and biotech were admonished for having an in-group mentality when it comes to innovation—favoring products and processes developed inside their organizations rather than looking externally for game-changing ideas.

On a panel titled “Social Media Changing Research Norms,” Innocentive Vice President Jon Fredrickson explained how his company uses social media and competition to help companies crowd-source innovation and overcome research roadblocks.  To showcase the power of open source innovation, Fredrickson offered up their experience with Roche, who came to Innocentive after combating a data validation problem for over a decade. Within 60 days of posting their challenge on the Web, Roche had received 113 proposed solutions from people around the world.

Big data is another industry darling, but Big data alone will not solve the industry’s woes, cautioned Kathy Giusti, Founder and CEO of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.  She called on academic researchers and biopharmaceutical companies to make their data more accessible to the public, asking, “What good is all this data if it never gets out?”  Allowing everyday people to access large, untapped data sets, the “democratization of data”, could yield solutions traditional researchers lack the bandwidth or fresh perspective to uncover.          

Stronger: Kanye West is no stranger to collaboration and has worked with artists from across the music industry, from deejays to divas.  The biotech industry can learn from Mr. West.  If traditionally disconnected stakeholders can open the channels of communication using technology, social media, and open-mindedness, efficiency and creativity can flourish.  This year has seen a spate of precompetitive research agreements between big biopharma companies, as well as innovative tie-ups between companies and disease advocacy organizations.  These collaborations are already bearing fruit: A new treatment for patients with a mutated form of cystic fibrosis was also approved this year and represents a joint effort by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and Vertex Pharmaceuticals.

Hopefully, the future will be full of sweet drug development music made by collaborations between patients, biopharma companies, regulatory agencies, academics and all the other sections of the industry!