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Pharmageddon continues

This time it’s Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK). You may remember that GSK was in the papers recently because it was one of the only big pharma companies with a potential vaccine for ebola. Well, now they’re cutting their R&D staff. According to the rumors flying over at In the Pipeline, the biggest cuts are going to happen at their research park in North Carolina.

How these things typically happen is the pharma in question just eliminates a whole research division or therapeutic area. Your job is not spared because you made your company a zillion dollars on the patent you sold to it for a dollar 10 years ago. I used to be in favor of this quid pro quo arrangement. You give me the means to do my research, I give you the fruit of my labor. But now, I’m not so sure. Like everything else, there are predators in the executive suites and on Wall Street who have zero appreciation for the amount of work it takes to create a new drug entity and plenty of people who think they own it. In some respects, researchers have only themselves to blame for not protecting their own interests, those being the need to earn a living in order to consume calories to sustain life and have a roof over their heads.

GSK’s cuts come on the heels of cuts at Astra-Zeneca, which decided to get rid of its antibiotics research unit. Yeah, try to figure that one out. And then there was Amgen that recently announced that it would cut up to 4000 jobs globally including at its research facility in Seattle. So, while the flood of layoffs in the US R&D industry has slowed down a bit since the high water mark of 2009-2010, it’s still not finished yet. After all, sooner or later, the industry will run out of people to lay off. But we’re still going to see pulses of carnage here and there, dumping more over-educated, over-qualified, experienced and talented chemists and biologists into the already saturated labor market. Fun, fun.

In other news, the left sometimes *almost* grasps what the problem is with pharmaceutical R&D but as soon as those of us who really know what’s going on turn our backs, we get more clueless BS from people like Dean Baker. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have him on my side. But he doesn’t seem to spend any time talking with people who have actually, you know, been there. There is something bizarrely automatic about the left’s misunderstanding of how drugs get invented and developed. Maybe this has something to do with the complexity of the process. Or maybe it’s just laziness.

Here’s the basic outline of the misunderstanding: The NIH, which we all pay for, does basic research. Then it collaborates with a big drug company and that big drug company turns around and sells that basic research for a ginormous profit. All the big company does is scales the sucker up, runs some admittedly expensive clinical trials, and then produces and markets the drug, delivered fresh and complete from the NIH labs, directly to you the consumer at an enormous markup.

There is just enough truth about the greed of the executive and finance movers and shakers to make this look plausible. Unfortunately, it is one of those beautiful theories easily destroyed by ugly facts.

I don’t want to go into this again because it will take at least several posts to unpack but the NIH rarely delivers a pristine drug to industry. No, the whole idea of basic research is that it is basic. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard or not valuable. It means there is sometimes little more than a nugget of a something to follow up on. The “drugs” are sometimes nothing more than fragments or completely undruggable. (Undruggability is a whole different topic) Sometimes, there is no drug delivered to industry. Sometimes, it’s merely the suggestion that a specific protein target may or may not be involved in some undesirable endpoint.

The role of industry R&D is to take this very basic research and through many years of real, genuine, honest-to-god research, turn it into something resembling a drug. It is a very expensive process. I’m not surprised at the numbers being batted around. That is not to say that we can’t cut back on the amount of marketing that pharma does. At the end of the day, what is more valuable to you? The researchers that invent an ebola vaccine or the marketers that tell you why you need it? But to get real drugs from real research, a lot of money must be spent in order to pay for many trials and errors and reagents and lab equipment and researchers who need to be fed and housed.

That being said, it sure does look like there is a plan to exploit NIH and academic labs. If you get rid of all your R&D units in the name of shareholder value, or at least cripple them with endless, non-productive mergers and acquisitions and layoffs, you may end up without anything to market. And there are a lot of geeky students out there who are willing to work at subsistence wages to get a PhD. Why not use them as your new staff? That certainly looks like what is happening. It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What is missing in the equation is the experienced R&D staff that will know “when to hold’em and when to fold ’em” when it comes to actually making the potential drugs. In other words, there will be a lot of reinventing of the wheel in academic labs as they sort through how to do it on limited soft money.

It’s a research strategy only a banker could love.

***********

One bright spot for the journal famished: Nature is experimenting with making its journal archive and current issue available as a free “read-only” version. That’s to circumvent the habit of some poor researchers who have to sneak around to satisfy their paper habit, a phenomenon known as “dark sharing”. You have to know someone who has inside access to a license, usually some friend who is still in industry or someone at a university. This is what we are reduced to: sharing illicit copies of nerdy papers like they’re banned versions of Tropic of Cancer. Read-only versions that you can’t save or refer to later is  better than nothing, I guess, though not quite as good as getting a subscription to Nature and Science for Christmas.

 

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