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Research At Big Pharma

July 13, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 28

In a remarkable stroke of editorial journalism, the April 20 issue of C&EN carried articles (pages 25 and 48) first decrying and then applauding the present state of scientific research in "big pharma." While appearing to be diametrically opposite in their assessment, facts appear to support both viewpoints.

As a neutral observer who was intimately involved with the broad industry from the early 1950s, I completely agree with the opinions of Jeffery Conn and others cited in the fine article "Breaking the Mold" by Lisa M. Jarvis. For example, she states, "Conn feels ... the old ways of finding drugs at big pharma aren't working," and "the only projects supported are those with a direct impact on the bottom line."

But in the book review of "Drug Truths: Dispelling the Myths about Pharma R&D," reviewer Jean-FranÇois Tremblay describes the author John LaMattina as a heroic defender of R&D in the major pharmaceutical firms. How can this apparent dichotomy be explained?

Basically, the answer is relatively simple. LaMattina details how dedicated, qualified, and altruistic the people are in big pharma R&D. But, bluntly put, those people are no longer in charge.

Let me explain. In the 1960s, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association Board of Directors (PMA was later renamed the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America) unceremoniously dumped the distinguished medical scientist and former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Austin Smith, as its president and CEO in favor of a lobbyist-lawyer. That move was symbolic of a complete change in the fundamental culture of the industry.

In fact, soon afterward, I was talking with Farleigh Dickinson (of Becton, Dickinson & Co.) at a PMA annual meeting reception, and he looked around and commented to me: "I don't know these people anymore. Oh, I know their names and who they are, but they're not the kind of people we used to have running the drug companies."

And he was right. Formerly, at those meetings, I'd see people like Gifford Upjohn, Max Tishler, Harry Loynd, and other physicians, pharmacists, and scientists as the company CEOs. But now, the people there as company CEOs are lawyers, economists, bankers, and other business types who had come up through finance, marketing, advertising, and promotion.

So, the entire thrust of the industry had radically changed. The so-called full-line pharmaceutical companies had transformed into the "brand name" drug industry.

In his book, LaMattina—who is justifiably proud of the industry's R&D people—appears to be oblivious to the overall corporate change, a change that has inspired the fundamental research shift Jarvis describes and that has substantially tarnished the glowing image LaMattina still holds.

Edward G. Feldmann
Venice, Fla.



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