Opinie: The future of drug research is not in pharmaceutical companies
It is starting to get pretty annoying and disturbing. Earlier this year the R&D of Organon, now the R&D of Solvay (where my uncle did drug discovery in the days it was still Philips (!) Duphar): Both doomed to disappear following take-over by a US company. Will all corporate drug research disappear from this country? Perhaps even from Europe? One might want to blame the Americans. They buy European companies for the current cash flows from the products on the market. Everything unnecessary that drains the cash flow â€“like research- is stopped. And then the cash is invested in research somewhere else. Although: may it not be that the cash is not invested in research at all?
In the media and politics the usual issue is raised: "Should we not do more to keep these high value jobs in the Netherlands?" Meaning: why does the government not do something: more subsidies for R&D! Or simply a law that makes this sort of American intervention illegal. A better idea might be to look at some general background and in particular two fundamental paradigm shifts. Nothing new, probably everyone in the pharmaceutical industry and research is aware of them, but perhaps it would be good if others (like journalists and politicians) also know about them.
The first is that the pharmaceutical industry no longer has control over, or even the best science base for, discovering new drugs. As Tom McKillop, then CEO of AstraZeneca stated already in 1999: "Ninety-nine percent of everything exciting that happens will happen outside your own research labs". He was talking about research labs of companies spending billions on research every year.
Instead, the really exciting stuff happens in biotech companies and more importantly, in universities, university hospitals and all kinds of other not-for-profit organizations backed by government and other not-for profit money. So, what is the point of investing in corporate drug research when the chance is pretty remote that it will be YOUR corporate researchers that will come up with "the next big thing?"
Secondly, the current business model for new, innovative drugs is under pressure, for two reasons. First, the expanding knowledge base combined with safety consciousness increases the cost of drug development while decreasing the chance of successfully developing a drug, resulting in astronomical development costs per drug that reaches the market. Second, more detailed knowledge of the different causes of disease leads to more specific drugs for smaller patient groups and consequently to smaller markets. Result: smaller markets have to bear higher investment costs in drug development. That won't work. Either we go and pay more for new and better drugs or we decide we do not want them. Considering that politics nowadays is primarily about how to cut (healthcare) budgets: what is the point of investing in drug research when you know the chance is pretty remote that society is prepared to pay the price?
So, it's no surprise that pharmaceutical companies close down R&D departments. That this currently happens in the Netherlands in particular may well be a coincidence that has no relation with the Netherlands in particular. Although: if the research at those departments would have really been promising and with great potential? Anyway, it might be wise to reconsider before taking measures to subsidize pharmaceutical company research just to keep it in the Netherlands.
Most likely, the future of drug research is not in pharmaceutical companies. It seems to only make sense that big pharmaceutical companies withdraw from research, instead focusing on the late-stage development of in-licensed drugs, building on their strengths in clinical development, production, marketing and distribution. Correspondingly, the future will see a further shift to not-for-profit research in universities and hospitals together with dedicated technology and early stage development companies which help make the transition to pharmaceutical industry. Already, there are more and more examples of academic hospitals embarking on drug development and charities backing entrepreneurial "from biotech to drug candidate" companies.
This interface of science, technology and business is where governments might co-invest, and will have to co-invest more if we want to profit in a not too distant future from the health benefits modern science can bring us. This obviously is not really an answer to what to do now in the Netherlands. At least the following issues will need to be addressed first. Taking into account the way the pharmaceutical sector seems to develop: can we find a productive way to engage the research talent and capabilities that will come available? And can we think of a "business model" such that government intervention (=investments) will provide a reasonable pay-off to the Netherlands?