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Pharma Leaders Meet in Cambridge

December 20, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 51

For the second year, the ACS/Pharma Leaders Meeting brought together executive leaders of chemistry research from industrial drug discovery. Twenty-eight executives representing 17 companies attended the meeting, which was held on Oct. 20–21 at the new Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR) center in Cambridge, Mass.

Coorganized by Scott Biller, head of global discovery chemistry at NIBR; Magid Abou-Gharbia, head of chemical and screening sciences at Wyeth; and ACS Industry Member Programs, the meeting was designed to provide research leaders of chemistry with an opportunity to discuss issues, challenges, and concerns that face the industry.

In addition to Novartis and Wyeth, research leaders from Abbott Laboratories, Albany Molecular Research, AstraZeneca, Sanofi-Aventis, Biogen Idec, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Cephalon, GlaxoSmithKline, Hoffmann-La Roche, Infinity Pharmaceuticals, Lexicon Pharmaceuticals, Merck, Pfizer, Schering-Plough, and Vertex Pharmaceuticals attended.

The meeting's discussion on chemical alliances and outsourcing generated the most dynamic conversation among attendees. In his introductory remarks, Biller noted that one of the greatest challenges of being a global drug discovery company today is determining how best to lead across multiple research sites throughout the world. "Leaders need to manage and balance local versus global responsibilities and modes of establishing accountability accordingly," he said. In addition, maximizing communication, sharing information, and keeping costs controlled are also critical in conducting R&D on a global scale.

Novartis has multiple research centers in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. While the meeting participants acknowledged that they still rely on U.S. and European research, the fast-growing research talent in Asia--particularly in India and China--is a clear motivator for pharma to look beyond U.S. borders. Pharma leaders also recognize that the growing market of customers in these parts of the world, coupled with the potential cost efficiencies they present, make movement of certain R&D functions an attractive option for companies.

That said, several meeting attendees noted that it is not possible to make a dollar-for-dollar comparison today between U.S and European versus Asian research. A large company's decision to outsource segments of its medicinal chemistry research to a smaller, U.S.-based service firm is often driven by reasons that are entirely different from those that motivate the same company to establish research collaborations in India or China. Outsourcing and building alliances can present a company with added flexibility for research and have the potential to get more out of existing dollars dedicated to discovery work. Companies that have explored and, in some cases, already established research activities in Asia do acknowledge that the business practices there are still variable.

Meeting attendees acknowledged that rising health care costs, the controversy surrounding drug importation, and the abundance of television advertising for "lifestyle" drugs have come together to generate a negative image of the industry--whereas the major contributions of the industry to world health and quality of life are often overlooked. Many in the room supported efforts that could promote the positive contributions of the industry, especially in pharmaceutical chemistry.

In a presentation to the group, ACS Board Chair James D. Burke noted that more ACS members are employed today in pharmaceutical manufacturing than in traditional chemical industries, and that among ACS technical divisions, there is a fast-paced growth of activity in the biological and medicinal areas. Afterward, attendees urged ACS to explore ways of working together with pharma on the issue of image. One suggestion was to further highlight to the public ACS-driven initiatives such as the Heroes of Chemistry program, which specifically honors chemistry in industry. "Broader dissemination of this program through the news media focusing on the role and impact of chemistry in improving our lives could help balance the exposure pharma receives through its products," Abou-Gharbia said. Burke agreed to communicate the recommendations of the group to the society.


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