Network pharmacology: the key to understanding biotechs biggest concern?

Malcolm Young, CEO of e-therapeutics and a network pharmacologist, spoke to me about his concerns for the industry. Out of all of them, one stood out in particular.

Understanding the challenge for the biotech industry

Here’s the excerpt from the interview I conducted with Malcolm:

B&M: What is the thing that most concerns you about the industry at the moment?

Malcolm: The cycle we are in is quite profoundly different to previous ones in my opinion. Hundreds of thousands of very capable people have been made redundant from major pharma R&D in the last 5 years and in terms of growth obviously the largest companies are struggling.

I think it’s different this time, and at the root of that is R&D productivity. The industry has not been able to reverse the nasty 50 year exponential decline in R&D productivity. If they can’t do anything about it, and I can’t see much sign that ‘we’ collectively have or will, then the future looks more generic. Most drugs that will be given to people will be those that have been discovered some time ago, peppered with the odd high-value premium priced drug - but the near future will not nearly reflect the industry that we’ve been used to seeing. …

I think the problem is so bad statistically that it’s not really imputable to laziness or stupidity. It’s something much worse. It’s not even headwinds – payers may be less willing to pay for incrementally improved drugs, regulators may have raised the bar because of safety, those things are certainly present and certainly are headwinds - but they don’t explain why it’s so bad or why it’s grown so much worse.

‘The industry has not been able to reverse the nasty 50 year exponential decline in R&D productivity.’ Tweet: 'The industry has not been able to reverse the nasty 50 year exponential decline in R&D productivity.'

So, what is at the root of the R&D productivity problem?

Malcolm’s view is that there’s a fundamental scientific problem about the basis of the lack of productivity. Being a network pharmacologist, he believes it boils down to the basic problem with discovery programs built on molecular reduction.

He explains:

Malcolm: If your belief is that producing a high-affinity inhibitor of a single protein is going to give you a drug, that’s not how they work, it’s this downstream footprint which is actually doing the work. If you’re not paying attention to that, all you’re doing in even really expensive drug discovery is producing plausible chemical diversity which the clinic is then evaluating.

The clinic is applying a holistic test, much more akin to the footprint idea, it’s testing in lots of different cell types and tissue types and then the clinic is telling you whether you’ve got something or not. A consequence of that is that you don’t know which drug candidates are going to work and the clinic is telling you that.

Clinical trials are expensive, and so most of the expenditure in the drug discovery industry worldwide is on those drugs that fail. To spend all this money in the clinic to find out whether you’ve got something is economically inefficient. Until you can pre-empt better what the clinic will tell you, you’re still going to have this really fundamental economic problem.’

Malcolm’s network pharmacology approach to understanding the root of the R&D productivity challenge offers a fresh and unique perspective. All we need to do now is find a way to pre-empt better what the clinic will tell us. Malcolm clearly believes network pharmacology can do this. What do you think?

If you’d like to know what else Malcolm had to say in this wide ranging interview, Download the full transcript here.

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