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Turning the tide of pharmaceutical productivity

The past decade has seen what J. P. Garnier, chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, describes as a 'productivity crisis' in pharmaceutical research and development. In 1992, hopes were high that the human genome project heralded an era abundant in new, targeted medicines. However, since that time, the number of new chemical entities (NCEs) launched has declined by 30 per cent, while pharmaceutical R&D expenditure has grown by 20 per cent each year. Why this apparent dichotomy? Frank Brown, a partner in IBM's Life Sciences Pharma Practice, argues that many large pharmaceutical companies have been slow to integrate the discovery and development of therapeutic biomolecules into their operating models. Instead, they have stayed with the chemistry-based blockbuster approach that served them so well in the 1980s. In the meantime, according to the NIH, biological-based products have grown to comprise 73 per cent of the most innovative drugs in the industry pipeline, despite biologicals only attracting 11 per cent of overall research expenditure.

So, the landscape is changing. Certain successful biotechnology companies that have innovated around the 'new biology', such as Genentech, Millennium, and Amgen, are emerging as significant forces in healthcare research for the 21st century. Mirroring this situation, the profile of successful information technology providers to the industry will also inevitably shift. This article examines the current state of discovery informatics and argues that, in the near future, pharmaceutical companies will demand a rare combination of characteristics in the vendor companies they choose as partners.

So where does software fit today, in terms of solving the pharmaceutical industry's productivity issues? The central premise of pharmaceutical research - the need to generate high quality data about biological systems and make sense of it in order to develop novel insights and therapeutics - is without doubt. However, information technology is not a strategic function in many research organisations. The budgeting and planning cycles of IT departments are often misaligned with that of research. This contributes to frustrating delays at the operational level, and dangerous structural disconnects in information across the whole corporation. Despite an abundance of technology on the market, and spending between four and five per cent of annual gross revenues on IT, pharmaceutical companies are still far from the holy grail of bringing information together easily and consistently. Disconnects between data, knowledge, organisational and strategic information management hamper the entire industry. Yet still, technology decisions are made without sufficient consideration of how they contribute to the overall strategic goals of the organisation.

Perhaps IT would be invited into the boardroom if it had solutions to the informational challenges of the biology revolution? The discovery informatics discipline, like the pharmaceutical industry it serves, is at a critical inflexion point. The data challenges of combinatorial chemistry, high throughput screening and conventional compound profiling seem tame compared to what high throughput biology is bringing. Science is moving so fast that it is hard to predict what the next few years will bring, let alone the next decade. However, look ahead IT must. If the potential of biology-based research is to be realised, then informatics has to raise its game. The complexity - not to mention volume - of data that will be generated by high throughput profiling and optimisation of potential personal medicines, means that informatics must lead the way, not follow.

What does this mean for informaticians and software companies that will serve the pharmaceutical industry? Software companies and IT professionals must move technology forward dramatically and urgently in order to deliver what pharmaceutical scientists need. The ability to innovate boldly will, therefore, be a critical competency. Like the biotechnology sector, discovery informatics has produced more than its fair share of vendor companies that are 'here today and gone tomorrow.' For that reason, the pharmaceutical industry will be rightly choosy about those with whom it partners. Therefore, the possession of strategic insight into the direction and needs of science, and the ability to offer real support for the long term, will be key attributes of chosen suppliers.

The profile of successful informatics organisations of the future will therefore have a hybrid quality. They will exude the innovation typical of some smaller companies, yet have the staying power and strategic acumen that comes with maturity. They will facilitate the pharmaceutical industry in making vastly better use of its existing cheminformatics data, as well as exploiting the exciting potential of advances in biology. These companies must be ready and waiting with a new breed of innovative technology before the scientists even know they need it - and be able to back that up with quality support for users - to help the industry turn back the tide in its productivity.

Neil Kipling is Chairman and CEO of IDBS


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Von Bohlen, F. (2004). Reassessing impact and benefits of bio-information technology, Genetic Engineering News, Vol. 24, Number 8, April 15, 2004.

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