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Bernie Sanders and the $1Million dollar drug innovation prize

Bernie Sanders sent out a tweet yesterday pointing to a Slate article from 2008.  It’s a proposal for revamping the patent system.  The idea is to reward drug innovators with a $1Million dollar prize instead of a patent.

 

When I told the BFF about it, he said, “Great!  What do we do on day 2?”

Seriously, Bernie, this is not necessarily a bad idea.  There are a lot of drug innovators out of work right now, or their work situations are very precarious.  This is especially true of medicinal chemists who specialize in transforming chemical scaffolds into drugs.  Then there are people like yours truly who design drugs who are vamping until our next gigs.

The problem is that drug research is incredibly expensive.  Any idea we have has to be ordered or made, and then tested.  There will have to be multiple assays run to verify structure activity relationships and biological activity.  Then there is the gauntlet of safety analyses required by the FDA.  It could work in a virtual environment but it requires the drug innovator to assemble a pharmaceutical company by themselves and presumably that $1M prize would have to be used to pay all of the contributors back.  After all, pharmacologists have to eat too.  What I fear would happen with the prizes is that desperate innovators would end up signing all their rights away to venture capitalists in order to make payroll while they’re starting up and going through the necessary iterations to prove a concept.

In other words, it’s not enough to live on or start to innovate, especially when one considers that it takes years and overhead expenses of the painstaking trials and errors to bring a drug to market.  Incubators have a very high failure rate.  I’m sure that the incubator model is just perfect for someone out there looking to feed on carrion but for labrats with families?   Ehhhhhh, not so much.  How do you bring down the startup costs?

I have a better idea.  The government can start its own companies.  Right now, pharmaceutical companies are trying to shed or tear down their labs in the US.  They want to rent the space to incubators but frequently, the price is too high for little companies.  In the end, it’s cheaper to just demolish them.  Buy the suckers up along with the equipment.  Better yet, snap up the old labs in the midwest.  That way, the scientists you need to hire to run the places can afford to live there on reasonable salaries.  Give us a place to do what we love and let us make the management decisions without the constant restructuring and mergers.  Then, we’ll sell the patents back to the government for a dollar.  That’s the going rate at the old pharma I used to work for.  It’s a fair deal.  You get dedicated scientists who can focus on their work without worrying about losing their houses and their kids’ college funds and you get the patents you need to bring the costs of prescription drugs down.

While you’re at it, reform and update the FDA so new drug entities can come to market.  You’re also going to have to level with the public about drug safety.  It is going to have to assume some level of risk or new drugs will never make it.

The big pharma companies won’t like it much.  In fact, I can already hear them howling and marshalling their army of lobbyists.  In general, I’m sympathetic to their predicament but if they hadn’t bet the pharm on short term solutions instead of the hard work to fix a broken system, they wouldn’t be in mess they’re in.  This is where we are in terms of drug innovation: research for antibiotics, cardiovascular, CNS and reproductive health drugs are getting severely scaled back by big pharma.  The big companies are going after biologicals, which have their own set of problems.  Well, alright then, let the pharmas knock themselves out on antibodies and have the government focus on the other therapeutic areas they have decided to pass on.

So, go, Bernie, but think this through thoroughly. You want to set it up in a way that makes it resistant to political games.  What pharma research needs is stability in order to innovate.  Any potential public-private partnerships need to be set up in way that protects and preserves this country’s scientific infrastructure and allows innovation without the chaos of the quarterly earnings report.  In other words, R&D has to be sequestered from the pressures of the business environment to some extent.  Just as you don’t want your insurance company deciding your medical treatment, you don’t want MBAs directing research.

Make sure to consult people in the R&D industry who are already in the process of setting up their own mom&pop drug companies in their garages.  That means you need to talk to the people who actually do the work, not the management class.  You will get a completely different assessment of what is broken in the current system and how to repair it.  You will have to compensate us well enough to induce a future generation of scientists to discover drugs.  That’s because this is hard work, requiring years of study and lab experience.  It has to be rewarded appropriately.  Health care and pensions would be very attractive.  But in the end, it could be a bargain.

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12 Responses

  1. I love this idea. It makes a lot of sense to have government deciding which drugs for which diseases to pursue.

    Carolyn Kay
    MakeThemAccountable.com

    • Not sure this is a good permanent solution but the situation is very serious right now. I’d look take a good look at any solution right now or even several at once.

      • Did you get my message about Smart Jobs?

        If not, send me an email and I’ll send it to you. The Confluence email address doesn’t work.

        • Is that the Clinton foundation meeting that requires attendees to 1.) be senior representatives of their organizations and 2.) put up $3000 of their own money to attend? Because I have other things I need to spend $3000 on.
          When it comes to jobs summits, the Unemployed shouldnt have to pay to get heard.

          • No, it’s research by Wired and MPR, and the information is free.

            Wired:
            http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/05/ff_jobsessay/

            By looking closely at data from both government and academic sources, we can see the gradual emergence of a whole new category of middle-class jobs: a realm of work that (given time and luck) could begin to close the chasm in American employment. These new middle-class jobs are what you might call smart jobs…

            These new, innovative middle-class jobs are cropping up all over the country, in regions where you’d never expect to find them. Dayton, Ohio, is a hot spot for radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, while Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana[*], has become a hub for PVC and synthetic rubber. In information technology, job growth is flourishing from Richmond, Virginia, to Provo, Utah. Once these pockets of innovation gain a foothold, they can grow; the employers subdivide, multiply.

            As you might expect, smart jobs tend to cluster in cities—but not always the cities you’d imagine. The same forces of urban renewal that relaunched New York and Boston and San Francisco as bastions of livability during the 1990s have now taken hold in smaller municipalities. Even former industrial cities, without a big college or university, are finding that revived downtowns can help keep their most creative young people from moving away.

            *Where I am from.

            Minnesota Public Radio:
            http://minnesota.publicradio.org/features/npr.php?id=136690812
            If you want a job — a good job, a job that will be around for a while and pays well — find a company that creates some new product or service that nobody else has…

            For example: a greenhouse in Memphis, Tennessee.

            The greenhouse is owned by Bayer CropScience, part of the German aspirin company. Bayer is the leading seller of cotton seed in the U.S. And the company is continually coming up with new versions of its genetically modified cotton seeds.
            Al Balducchi, who runs the greenhouse, calls that genetic modification a form of technology, which seems weird to me. I think of technology as my a better camera in my cell phone. I don’t think of technology as plants.

            “You can think of these plants as being wired differently, as having protocols and capabilities and functions that they didn’t already have,” Balducchi says. “These are new abilities that we’re building in.”

          • Ohhh, yes, the “we will all become entrepreneurs of our own little companies making something that no one else has”. I think the bullshit term for this is “economic gardening”.
            Read this if you want to find out what this means for biopharmaceuticals.
            https://riverdaughter.wordpress.com/2011/05/11/wednesday-their-plans-for-us/
            Bottom line: if you have a family, this doesnt work. And the failure rate for small biotech incubators is 80%.
            Biotech is very expensive. It requires a lot of up front investment, usually from the scientists. And you have to work the lab and the business end.
            I’m sorry but it’s too risky for many of us for too little return. I wish this crap would stop getting pushed on us.

          • I think there was more than one suggestion there.

            You’re welcome.

          • The question is what to do about all of the unemployed biopharmaceutical workers. We’re trained in medicinal chemistry and the life sciences. For that particular industry, startup costs are very high and it takes years of investment. The risks to the worker are very high. It might work for people doing RFID research or information technology but as you’ll notice, the guy doing recombinant protein expression in plants is part of Bayer. If a big company wants to hire you to do stuff like that, it works. If it’s a handful of people on their own, it is much much harder. My comment about the crap being pushed on us refers to the geniuses who think this is going to work for biotech. It’s time they stopped doing this. It isn’t helping.

  2. Happy Memorial Day weekend fellow Confluence 🙂

  3. It’s not what makes sense, but what makes money the most for any industry. Keeping others from competing by whatever means, is the path that companies will follow. Long patents is the easiest way to keep competition at bay. It’s not that I’m against patents to recoup the investment, but I think the life of patents is too long, and more important, stuff that shouldn’t be patented is, e.g. Monsanto’s GMOs.

    • Oddly enuf, I don’t agree with you. These days patents are eaten through quite a bit before the drug hits the market. That drives the price of drugs higher because companies need to recoup research. And what causes the delays? Getting a drug approval parked at the FDA will do it.
      I don’t have anything against companies making a profit as long as it’s not excessive. In the end, drug treatment costs a lot less than spending time in the hospital.

    • The problem is we have a crisis on our hands. There are no new drugs coming to market. The companies have mismanaged research, the FDA is dysfunctional, class action suits have had an effect on taking risks with new drugs.
      So, we’re going to be stuck with nothing but generics soon. That’s ok from a cost perspective but they are older generation drugs and come with more side effects and lower efficacy.
      Not to mention pretty soon, no one in thus country will want to do science. You can’t force people to study until they’re nearly thirty and then ask them to make $37k a year in a high cost of living region of the country. Are you kidding???
      Would YOU do that?
      It’s an emergency situation that calls for creative solutions ASAP.

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