It is not uncommon that I am asked the following question during public talks: “Does innovation happen in large pharmaceutical companies?” Sometimes, the question is just a critical comment, disguised as a question: “Large pharma does not innovate, they just conduct clinical trials and drive up the cost of drugs. Right?” Other times the questions are more thoughtful: “As an academic, I don’t see what happens in industry. Can you describe examples of innovation driven out of large pharma?”
[Disclaimer: I am a Merck/MSD employee. The opinions I am expressing are my own and do not necessarily represent the position of my employer.]
At the risk of sounding defensive, here are some answers to the “pharma innovation” question. I know there are many more, and I invite readers to share their examples. Admittedly, the examples are biased towards examples at Merck, but that is just because I know these examples better.
First, the past couple of weeks have been particularly good for industry scientists. These recent examples provide objective evidence to answer the pharma innovation question.
(a) 2015 Nobel Prizein Physiology or Medicine. Former Merck scientist Dr. William Campbell was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of an antiparasitic agent used to treat river blindness in places like Latin America, Africa and Yemen.…
Oliver Sacks has terminal cancer. If you have not yet read his heart-warming Op-Ed piece in the New York Times and if you only have five-minutes to spare, then I suggest you read his essay rather than this blog about “experiments of nature” in drug discovery. In his essay, Dr. Sacks concludes with the poignant sentence: “Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
So why do I blog, tweet, etc. given the potential risk? I enjoy the public exchange of ideas because, as Dr. Sacks write, that is the essence of our “sentient being”. I enjoy a network of inter-related ideas for which I can create unique connections.…
So, you have a target and want to start a drug discovery program, do ya? How would you do it?
When I was at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute, I presented an idea from an early GWAS of rheumatoid arthritis (RA, see here) to Ed Scolnick (former president of Merck Research Labs, now founding director of the Stanely Center at the Broad Institute, see here). In this study, we found evidence that a non-coding variant at the CD40 gene locus increased risk of RA. The first questions he asked: How does the genetic mutation alter CD40 function? Is it gain-of-function or loss-of-function? What assay would you use for a high-throughput small molecule screen to recapitulate the genetic finding?
I was caught off-guard. Sadly, I had never really thought about all of the details. At the time, I knew enough as a clinician, biologist and a geneticist to appreciate that CD40 was an attractive drug target for RA. However, I was quite naïve to the steps required to take a target into a drug screen. That simple conversation led to several years worth of work, which ultimately led to a proof-of-concept phenotypic screen published in PLoS Genetics five years later (see here).…
In my previous blog series I talked about why genetics is important in drug discovery: human genetics takes you to a target, informs on mechanism of action (MOA) for therapeutic perturbation, provides guidance for pre-clinical assays of target engagement, and facilitates indication selection for clinical trials.
Here, I provide an overview of a new blog series on how genetics influences decision-making during drug discovery. The key principle: human genetics establishes a disciplined mindset and a firm foundation – anchoring points – for advancing targets through the complicated process of drug discovery. [For those less familiar with drug discovery, the end of this blog provides a brief primer on the stages of drug discovery.]
I highlight three areas: establishing a balanced portfolio, identifying targets with novel MOA, and creating a framework for objective decision-making. In subsequent posts, I will focus primarily on how human genetics informs on the latter (decision-making), with blogs pertaining to designing assays for screens and target engagement, utilizing pre-clinical animal models, predicting on-target adverse drug events, and selecting indications for clinical trials.
1. Establish a balanced portfolio
Whether in academic research, a small biotech company (see here) or a large pharmaceutical company (such as Merck, where I work), a balanced portfolio of projects is very important.…
A key learning from my time in academia was the value of collaborations. Much of my most enjoyable and productive research was conducted in collaboration with fellow scientists across the globe.
I am pleased to report that industry is no different. After one year working for Merck, I have found that in addition to collaborations across the company ties with external scientific experts focused on advancing programs of interest are actively encouraged.
It is heartening to see how some recent progress in several notable drug development programs is leading to increased excitement around the application of human genetics in identifying human drug targets. As I have previously noted, human genetics can also provide insights to identifying pathways enriched for approved drugs (see Nature article here), which indicates that novel pathways may provide an important foundation for novel drug discovery programs. Indeed, the use of pathway-based approaches, including phenotypic screens, can provide a powerful way to make complex genetic pathways actionable for drug discovery.
Today, I am excited to note that Merck has launched a Merck Innovation Network (MINt) Request for Proposals to identify collaborations with academic scientists to evaluate genetic targets or genetic pathways for their potential to become drug discovery programs. …