Reining in Hyperbole About the Role of Drug Development

All opinions expressed are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk

“The traditional pharmaceutical research and development operating model is no longer sustainable,” says Dennis Liotta, PhD, founder of the Emory Institute for Drug Development (EIDD) and co-inventor of multiple approved drugs. “The marked decrease in the development of new therapeutics is having a uniformly negative effect on global health and threatens life expectancy, quality of life, economic development and national security. Emory’s new public-private enterprise is a bold new approach that can help solve this problem.”  From a press release from Emory University

Yesterday Emory University announced the creation of a non-profit entity, Drug Innovation Ventures at Emory, LLC (DRIVE), that aims to take discoveries made by Emory scientists and bring them to the point of proof-of-concept clinical trials.  I think this is a great idea.  While this press release is what I would call a bit overstated (while at the same time understating the real problems involved in translating discovery science into actual drugs), drug development is in need of different ideas and different approaches, and I’m all in favor of various organizations trying different things to develop drugs.  I’m also in favor of any system that gives academic researchers exposure to the steps leading to a lead candidate drug.

What concerns me, though, is the quote above.  Again, this is a press release and some hyperbole is to be expected, but at the same time is it fair to say that the reduced number of new drugs being developed is having a “uniformly negative effect on global health?”  Digging into DRIVE’s webpage, it’s clear the organization plans to focus on viral diseases, which makes the connection to global health direct.  However, I can’t help thinking that there’s a lot more involved in helping the health of people in developing countries than new vaccines and antivirals, and that while new drugs could help, the lack of new drugs doesn’t condemn those populations into some kind of downward spiral.  I doubt Dr. Liotta meant this explicitly, but his comment supports a view of a specific kind of technological innovation–drug development–as providing a cure, when I’d rather see expectations managed with a little more circumspection.  I think the industry suffers when presenting cures as being accomplished with a simple pill or a shot.  Many times, maybe most times, health problems are best viewed as the result of multiple, intertwined factors, of which biology is just one.

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