The drug pipeline: Is it bust, and if so can we fix it?


Since the post, the concept of Open Innovation has become popular. It may well provide the alternative metaphor called for. Original post follows. [Update added Aug 2009]

The big question for Big Pharma: Is the pipeline metaphor for drug discovery and exploitation no longer fit for purpose? And if so, where do we look for a more appropriate metaphor?

For decades, innovation texts have documented the basic process of drug discovery and exploitation as progressing through a pipeline. But it is a very peculiar pipeline, because it has a huge number of ‘things’ entering at one end (ideas), and a tiny number of things (products) emerging from the other end of the pipe.

Think of the pipeline as an ice-cream cone placed horizontally and you’ve got the broad picture to be found in the text-books. The ‘things’ entering in great numbers at the business end of the cone are ideas for active chemicals or leads. The ‘things’ oozing slowly out at the other end are new drugs, of which there even fewer ‘big winners’.

Once strategic considerations have identified a medical opportinity or need the pipeline process begins in earnest. The description offered by AstraZeneca is a generic one:

High Throughput Screening is an automated system for testing tens or even hundreds of thousands of compounds rapidly and is highly effective for eliminating ineffective compounds and identifying potentially useful ones.

But the pipeline model has had its critics :

Ten years ago, high throughput screening (HTS) was being touted as the answer to improving productivity in drug discovery. If screening thousands of compounds a week was good, screening hundreds of thousands would be even better. This led to the boom in Ultra HTS (UHTS), manufacturing-scale systems, and high-speed automation. Today, reality has begun to creep in: HTS and UHTS have not lived up to their hype. R&D productivity is not improving, in fact it may be declining

A model past its sell-by date?

My uneasiness about old mental models is being echoed by pharmamacutical insiders. Mats Sundgren with many years of experience, has successfully completed his doctorate on the need for new thinking in the industry. He argues that over time, research has increasingly accepted the need for rationality in a way that is precluding the possibilities for imaginative (‘creative’) leaps of discovery. Sundgren argues that the management of creativity will be the decisive competitive advantage of the future.

Alexander Styrhre of Chalmers University with Sundgren have further developed an analysis of pharmaceutical companies.

They suggest that the there is a wider need for more creativity, extending far beyond Big Pharma.

Is the pipeline bust, and must we fix it?

The drug pipeline has become such a given for those in the business of drug making and exploiting, that its inherent looseless is now left unchallenged. What might have started as a metaphor borrowed from earlier industrial usage has become a taken-for-granted cliche.

Take for example the press statement of a partnership between AstraZeneca and Bristol-Myers recently. A headline illustrting the industry dialect ran:

‘Deal [is] A Significant Step In Strengthening AstraZeneca’s Late Stage Pipeline Partnership Aligned with Bristol-Myers Squibb Company Strategy’.

You decide. My reading is that it’s time for a change of thinking about how Pharmaceutical comapanies go about their core mission of innovating in the interests of social health.

The drug companies are populated by large numbers of very bright people. I’ve served a bit of time among them, but now I mostly gaze from outside in. But I can still read the public pronouncements. In press releases, I’m still hearing talk as if the issue is to fix the plumbing, keep the pipeline. The mega giants of Big Pharma maintain their great chemical search machines churning away, piling leads for testing into the wide end of the funnel in ever greater numbers; smoothing the flow along the pipeline, to increase the chances of the billion-dollar idea emerging at the other end.

So what?

There are far wider issues to consider beyond the largely technical issues of re-examining the pipeline model of innovation. Widespread concerns of an ethical concern continue to plague the industry. One big advantage for a re-visiting of the pipeline is to see whether ‘pipeline thinking’ can
be challenged, and help in the design of more socially benign and less technologically dominated models and practice.

Managing creativity

Sundgren is suggesting Managing Creativity is one promising possibility. We have opened up the debate on creative leadership in earlier posts on this blog. A forthcoming special issue of the journal Creativity and Innovation Management will offer additional studies into these topics.

Is it too challenging to assert ‘there is no drug pipeline, and we have no need to invent one’?


2 Responses to The drug pipeline: Is it bust, and if so can we fix it?

  1. Jonathan Giuliano says:

    I agree. From my vantage point, the big pharma companies have become thoroughly bureaucratic and, hence, slow and uncreative in engineering breakthrough products. In the US, many drug makers have essentially outsourced drug discovery to scientists working at universities and receving federal funding. University scientists make no secret of their disdain for Big Pharma scientists. While the industry’s engineering process becomes less creative, is the marketing process becoming more creative? Are successful drugs created by engineering or advertising? I wonder if the current model for the drug industry resembles the old model of the film industry — a model in which the major Hollywood studios would find a potential star and (after meticulous testing, positioning, packaging, and advertising) make a movie star. From blockbuster movies to blockbuster drugs. So if Louis B. Mayer were alive today, would he run a movie studio or a pharma company? There is hope, however, and I think Mats Sundgren’s work on management of creativity is key. I see some anecdotal evidence that some executives in the industry are searching for a better model than the current one.

  2. Tudor says:

    Thanks Jonathan,

    As fas as I am aware, Mats is still employed in a well-known Big Pharma company, or I’m sure he would have some interesting ideas to contribute … (maybe he still will).
    I also see awakening interest in new models, and a willingness to buy-in the ‘creative front-end processes’ from entrepreneurial firms.

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