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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.