Issue Date: May 14, 2007
Frustration, Hope At Biotech Event
THE PROCESS OF discovering and commercializing breakthrough drugs for unmet medical needs dominated discussions last week when the international health care industry converged on Boston for the Biotechnology Industry Organization's BIO 2007 conference.
The annual event, which attracted more than 22,000 attendees, has grown over the years to include large- and small-molecule drug firms, research institutions, and service firms. Speakers addressed financial and regulatory challenges, as well as the scientific hurdles to drug development. The topic of translational medicine—the process of advancing new science from the laboratory to clinical patient care—figured prominently.
The keynote speaker, actor and Parkinson's disease sufferer Michael J. Fox, challenged attendees to close the chronic gap between invention and cures. He suggested shifting funding and resources away from "me-too" drugs and patent extensions to the far riskier endeavor of bringing breakthrough drugs to market.
"The tough truth is that [research funding] breaks down just where we need it most, where risk is highest," said Fox, who is also the founder of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. "How can we get this right?"
Several panelists at the PureTech Ventures Innovation Meeting, held in conjunction with BIO, addressed the challenge, noting that pipeline frustrations could actually lead the drug industry back to the source of true innovation: science.
"None of us are tweaking statins or SSRIs anymore," said panelist Steven M. Paul, executive vice president for science and technology at Eli Lilly & Co. He was referring to the earlier tendency of companies to pursue me-too products such as statin drugs for cholesterol management and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors—SSRIs—for depression.
Paul cautioned, however, that the increased interest in new therapeutic modalities and drug targets has brought a higher attrition rate for compounds in human testing. He noted that 70% of drugs in Phase II trials fail today, compared with 40% just a few years ago.
Also much discussed was the continuing push toward protein-based drugs by big drug companies that traditionally focused on small molecules. AstraZeneca was one such firm at the event. It hopes to complete its $15 billion purchase of MedImmune by the end of June, according to Jan M. Lundberg, executive vice president for discovery research. Last year, AstraZeneca acquired Cambridge Antibody Technology. These acquisitions follow an earlier strategy of developing monoclonal antibody drugs through collaboration with firms such as CAT, Diax, and Abgenix, Lundberg noted.
Wyeth, which claims to be the fourth-largest biopharmaceutical company worldwide, with a $6 billion-per-year business in vaccines and protein-based therapeutics, is looking to grow further via partnerships, according to Michael E. Kamarck, senior vice president at Wyeth Biotech.
With 24 vaccines, antibodies, and other protein-based compounds in development, Wyeth claims that one-third of its pipeline is biopharmaceutical. "We are looking for broad-based deals with technology-based companies that are also product-oriented," Kamarck said.
Meanwhile, smaller biopharmaceutical companies, many of which are developing small-molecule therapies, continue to be a driving force of innovation, and several of these companies say they are optimistic about candidates in late-stage clinical trials. Vertex, for example, is looking to hire 250 people to support late-stage development efforts, primarily for its hepatitis C drug candidate telaprevir, a small molecule currently in Phase II trials.
Contract pharmaceutical chemical manufacturers were also on hand at BIO's technical sessions and exhibit floor. "You gain insight on new compounds here that you cannot get anywhere else," said Wilhelm Stahl, head of Saltigo's pharmaceutical business.
Norac Pharma, an Azusa, Calif., contract manufacturer, exhibited for the second year. "Next to Informex, this is the best show for outsourcing and business development," said Jon Brice, head of business development, referring to the annual U.S. contract manufacturing exhibition.
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