There have been a lot of announcements in the biopharma field this week, and I’m just now getting around to GlaxoSmithKline’s from a couple of days ago. The company announced that they’re dropping 30 R&D programs and refocusing the ones that are left. Cancer and immunology are now back in favor, and rare disease programs seem to be mostly getting cut. The great majority of the budget, though, will be spend on respiratory conditions and on HIV/infectious diseases, which have been traditional strengths of the company.
There are two ways to think about this. On the absolute scale, these moves all can be defended, one way or another. It is interesting to see GSK abandon the rare disease business model, which many other companies have been rushing into over the last few years. Many have noted that this includes getting rid of a high-profile stem cell therapy where the company was a pioneer – that’s a topic all by itself, and worth coming back to.
But on the relative scale, relative to what the company has been doing in the past, it’s a mess. GSK got rid of a lot of their oncology a few years ago, and now they want back in? It’s hard not to think of some of this as flailing around, and you can bet that some of the company’s former employees see it that way. On the glass-half-full side, you might think of some of the reversals as rectifying decisions that haven’t worked out, and in that case, what alternative is there?
Outside of the particular details of this re-org, though, it’s worth thinking about what it says about the organization of big pharma R&D in general. Go back over the last twenty years in the business and trade press, and you can find all sorts of stuff about GSK’s research layout. As with so many other companies, whatever the latest iteration might be, it’s what everyone has been looking for. Now, at last, everyone’s positioned to be lean, effective, courageous, and productive – right? But you can’t get these qualities by asking for them, or by proclaiming them. They’re rare, and they’re hard.
If there were some notably more effective way to run a big drug company’s R&D, you’d think that someone might have hit on it by now, and that others might well have noticed and decided to emulate it. Instead, we have what we have in the industry: every few years, another rearrangement and rethink, because there is apparently no magic scientific delivery system. Centralize, decentralize, control the units or let them fly, splice and merge and then rend asunder. After a while it looks like Coleridge’s “ceaseless turmoil seething”, only this one leaves in its wake not huge fragments bounding around, but rather posters, desk ornaments, slogans, business-magazine headlines, and binders from training courses.