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Collaboration Can Lead Us To Better Discovery

Drug discovery has changed. The model of big pharma retaining all the knowledge within has become obsolete

Photo Credit : Umesh Goswami


When I first joined the pharmaceutical industry in 1988, I was a young doctor wanting to change the world. I was fascinated by research and the challenges of discovering new drugs. Here are the big questions I often get to hear: Why is it so difficult to find a cure for cancer? Why can’t it be prevented? Why do disparities exist between who can get the treatment and who can’t? Why is treatment so expensive? How do we train more cancer experts?

According to the National Cancer Institute in US, cancer is one of the most complex problems in modern medicine. There is no one way to stop it as it manifests in more than a hundred ways and can arise from numerous causes. Thousands of cancer-causing gene problems have already been identified and many more are yet to be discovered. Cancer results from an accumulation of mistakes or abnormalities in genes that normally control cell survival and growth in genes that control cell survival, growth and migration. Environmental factors can also cause abnormalities. The resulting mass of new cells forms the primary tumour. The tumour cells can then spread (or metastasise) from the primary to other parts of the body.

The foundation of beating cancer is built on understanding how healthy cells divide and how the process goes wrong. Why do cells proliferate too much? Genes are the instruction manual for cells and mutations are like errors in the base sequence. When these instructions are altered, cells may begin to multiply uncontrollably. Some chemicals in tobacco, viruses or bacteria and some chemicals or radiation also cause gene mutations. They disrupt the growth signalling pathway.

“How can we reduce the risk of cancer?”

Some wise advice: stop smoking. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Protect yourself from sunlight. Don’t drink a lot of alcohol. Have your cancer check-up regularly. Be aware of breast cancer.

Researchers are exploring more and more about genes and cancer. Each gene participates not in one pathway, but in many, possibly dozens. A disease may have many different pathways that take a wrong turn.

At present, there is a transition in the drug development industry. There are unprecedented challenges. The reasons are many: a) time for products from competitors is falling; b) generic alternatives to existing drugs are commanding a growing share; c) costs are rising but less than one drug in 10 recovers this cost; d) drug development is very risky as the failure rate is high; e) knowledge is growing exponentially. The regulatory bar is rising higher and higher.

So what is the answer? We must have a willingness to work on innovative collaborations, and developed multidisciplinary and multi-sector collaborations.

Bill Gates in his commencement speech this year urged Stanford graduates to focus on progress, not profit alone. No pharmaceutical company will be able to “profit alone”. It will, rather, have to “profit together” by joining forces with a wide range of organisations, academic institutions, hospitals and technology specialists.

Drug discovery has changed. The model of big pharma retaining all the knowledge within has become obsolete. Managing partnerships in the drug development cycle, while retaining core assets and knowledge will be the challenge. The biotechnology and nanotechnology revolution is already making an entry into the medical future. Minute pico quantities of tracer, which are extremely minute and toxic can be linked with radioactive tracers to flow into the blood and bind with the target lighting up the screen. The molecular imaging era is already helping to identify some fearsome diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer. Early diagnosis can help save a life.

The other big change will be a more networked world of research and science. In the past, knowledge was limited to a few big pharmaceutical industries leading to an asset-heavy model of research investment. Science was also limited to a few research institutions in the western world. The dramatic change is expected to be seen in the next few decades The patent filings are already moving East, especially in areas like medicinal chemistry or nanotechnology.

Collaborations across borders may see new breakthroughs. In the past, pharmaceutical companies had manufacturing plants equivalent to the size of football fields. In future, both drugs and food may be made in a single room that will be enough for global consumption. Safety of the product can be tested in the digital world to make sure the toxic side effects of drugs are minimised. Computer and robotic use like IBM’s “Watson” is increasingly making medical decisions with precision. The exciting changes in science and medicine will help solve some of humanity’s greatest problems.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Swati Piramal

The author is vice chairperson, Piramal Enterprises

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