Drug Development

A radically inexpensive, non-profit approach can transform drug R&D? Now, wait a minute…

The Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi) isn’t just out to develop new therapies to help the world’s poor. It believes it is on track to, in the words of executive director Bernard Pécoul, “demonstrate that a different model is possible for R&D.”

Suerie Moon

Suerie Moon

Working with a collaborative model, the non-profit has created a network of academics, government agencies and pharma companies which together have gained approval for 6 therapies and put another 26 in the clinic, according to a feature on the DNDi in Nature which bullishly endorses the alt-R&D initiative. The group did that with a budget of $290 million, which Nature pegs as one quarter the cost of a single development effort in pharma land.  Suerie Moon, a global-health researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and DNDi board member told Nature:

“For a long time, people thought about R&D as so complicated that it could only be done by the biggest for-profit firms in the world. I think we are at a point today where we can begin to take lessons from their experience and begin to apply them to non-neglected disease.”

Hep C is currently on their to-do list.

Debates over the true cost of drug R&D have proved endlessly fascinating for the past 5 years, and most now go way past the $1 billion mark, once you factor in all the money wasted on failures. But let’s set that aside. How about the Nature article’s fundamental theme: That the DNDi has developed a radically less expensive way to develop drugs that everyone can follow?

Derek Lowe

Derek Lowe

All that’s needed, says Pécoul, is to move away from the profit-based system to one driven by grants and prizes. Keep in mind here that he’s talking about a system in which just the top 10 players in biopharma spend about $70 billion a year on R&D.

Needless to say, the skeptics began to gather quickly. One of the reasons why the DNDi can do its research inexpensively, notes Derek Lowe in a blog post this morning, is that a lot of the work the DNDi relies on comes from companies wholly dependent on that profit-based system the group despises. And he provides a real-world example of just how that worked out in their favor.

Count Lowe among the large contingent in the industry who believes that the profit-based system is providing the only real hope we have of developing important new therapies, for everyone in the world. His remark:

I think that the DNDI is a worthwhile thing and that they’re doing good in the world. I would donate some of my own efforts to their work if the opportunity arose. But that donation would be made because I could afford it, just as the donations from the rest of the drug industry are being made because we can afford to do so, which is because we make money and have used this money to discover an awful lot about human drug research. I very much hope that the DNDI gets its compounds to those who need them – but to pretend that they’re showing us the way beyond the grubby profit motive is just mistaken.

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