Via Avik Roy at Forbes, there’s news of a deal between Pfizer and Washington University at St. Louis. The company is giving the university “unprecedented access” to what they say is a list of more than 500 drugs and failed drug candidates, and letting them tear into them in an effort to find out what new uses there might be for both current and failed compounds.
“There are two realities in drug discovery,” explains Don Frail, chief scientific officer of Pfizer’s Indications Discovery Unit. “The majority of candidates tested in development do not give the desired result, yet those drugs that do succeed typically have multiple uses. By harnessing the scientific expertise at this leading academic medical center, the collaboration seeks to discover entirely new uses for these compounds in areas of high patient need that might otherwise be left undiscovered.”
Pfizer’s paying Wash. U. $22.5 million as well, which will be well worth it if a single good repurposing idea comes out of the collaboration. Pfizer (or any large drug company) can run through twenty million dollars of expenses on its own without a qualm, so this deal should be no problem. These compounds seem to already have had a lot of work done on them, and will thus have a shorter path through development if something turns up.
I’ve no idea what the chances of that are, of course – probably not all that great, but it’s impossible to be sure about that. I do like the idea of letting a completely different set of eyes go over things, though. One of the biggest problems in a large organization is group-think. People get convinced that something is a hot area because other people seem convinced that it’s a hot area, and the same holds true for getting convinced that something’s not worth working on.
Look at the way Pfizer convinced itself that Exubera (inhaled insulin) was going to be a huge success, when it was actually a major disaster. On a smaller scale, that sort of thing happens all the time, all over the industry. Projects and ideas rise and fall only partly on their scientific merit – the drug labs are still staffed by human beings, and we’re susceptible to all the biases and errors that everyone else is. And it’s not like the Washington U people won’t have their own biases, but theirs will at least be different.
That brings me back to one of the many reasons that I don’t like giant drug company mergers. I think that we need as many different sets of eyes looking at our problems as we can get. The more shots get taken, from all sorts of angles, the better the chance of hitting something. And a huge company, while it does have room for some differences inside it, tends to homogenize viewpoints. The One Big Project with its One Big Compound will get the resources for a given area in the end. It’s like when a multiplex theater opens in a smaller town – they tell everyone that with 16 screens they’ll be able to bring in movies that otherwise never would play there. But come July, all sixteen screens are probably showing Revenge of the MegaSequel Part II, just to make sure that one’s starting every twenty minutes.