A Personal Take on R&D: Meet Dr. Alesci

A Personal Take on R&D: Meet Dr. Alesci

01.11.12 | By Kate Connors

Today I'm pleased to introduce to Catalyst readers PhRMA's new vice president of scientific affairs, Dr. Salvatore Alesci. Dr. Alesci has worked in research at the government level, for the National Institutes of Health, as well as for several biopharmaceutical research companies. Today, I sat down with Dr. Alesci to ask him a few questions about his experiences and his thoughts about the future of R&D.

How did you get into the field of biopharmaceutical research and development?

About six years ago, I was at a turning point in my career. I had spent eight years as a researcher at the NIH, published well, and mentored students and fellows. I felt that I had accomplished what I had hoped to accomplish, from learning basic science "hands-on" to a move toward a focus on translational research, which had become my passion. I was looking for my next challenge, and I felt that the biopharmaceutical industry was the right place for me to apply both my medical and scientific backgrounds to the development of new medicines. Despite being involved in medical research at NIH, drug development was something I hadn't yet had the opportunity to pursue to a great extent.

The move from the NIH to the private industry was a challenging transition to make. I had to integrate myself into a very structured and regulated system. Moreover, the field of translational medicine was not yet very well understood.

How has research changed since you joined the industry?

There have been countless changes, a lot of which have to do with how amazingly fast the technology associated with research has evolved. When I started at the NIH, fields like genomics, proteomics, molecular imaging were at their infancy, "buzzwords" we heard about. If you look at where those fields were 13 or 14 years ago, and where they are today - and where, in the future, they can go - it's really remarkable. I was lucky to be at NIH when the human genome project was going on, so I lived through this evolution (or revolution, if you prefer) with great excitement.

With that, of course, came a new challenge: we have so much technology at our disposal today that it can feel overwhelming. We should not forget, though, that, at the end of the day, technology is just a tool that should enhance, but not substitute for, our critical thinking.

Another change has been the emergence, as I noted before, of translational and personalized medicine, which I believe has truly the potential to change the way we investigate diseases and bring new medicines to patients, when properly implemented. I've seen it grow from something that was in the background to an area with real investment - an area on which to build the future of R&D.
I've also witnessed first-hand some major company restructuring. These changes, while painful, have helped our industry realize that paradigms have to shift in order to successfully move into the 21st century.

What can - and should - be done to encourage scientific growth and progress?

We need more incentives to stimulate science and innovation. Despite the economic challenges, our industry has continued to invest in R&D, more than any other industry, without being provided with any additional incentives.

For example, if you have made the effort to significantly invest into a groundbreaking process that generated a groundbreaking discovery, then you should be rewarded with a groundbreaking path to make sure that your discovery reaches the market as soon as possible, to everybody's benefit, and remains well protected. You can't expect sustained scientific growth without encouraging it. Look at Singapore for example. It was not known as a hub for innovation until the government made a conscious decision to attract and incentivize investments in science and technology. The end result: scientific growth that drove economic growth and helped put the country on the map.

Also, particularly at a time like this when budgets are tight, partnerships, which are often an important vehicle to foster growth and innovation, become even more important. Companies are moving away from the "I can do it all" model to experiment with more flexible, dynamic models. True strategic partnerships between government, academic institutions, nonprofit organizations, and pharmaceutical companies will become essential to maintain a high level of innovation while improving efficiencies and preserving productivity.

What challenges remain in the pursuit of medical advances?

The challenges we're facing are unprecedented and global, not just for our sector. The economic pressures throughout the world have affected and will continue to impact our industry, like many others. On top of economic pressures, there are the added complexities of drug development, which is different from any other business. The cost of developing a new drug has grown exponentially in recent years and the environment is more and more regulated. We also face increasing generic competition, which threatens to hurt innovation. After all, generic companies don't make the huge investment in R&D that branded drug companies do.

The short-term challenges, though, should not undermine the longer-term opportunities, which are also unprecedented. As I stated before, we have information and tools at our disposal today that were not available in the past. If properly channeled, they will enable us to more precisely translate scientific discoveries into more personalized therapies that address unmet medical needs.

We're so glad to have you here at PhRMA and to hear your thoughts today.

Thank you. I'm proud to be part of this industry, with its many challenges and opportunities. Each challenge also presents an opportunity. Look at Apple - they faced challenging times and I'm sure, like our companies, they went through some painful changes. But also like our companies, Apple never gave up on innovation, rather making it the driving force to turn its fortune around and make it the leader in its sector. Or look at Singapore. It did not change overnight into a science hub, but it remained focused on its goal, and what an impact those changes have made.

Our goal remains to bring innovative medicines to patients that need them. To do that, we must become more agile, more "personalized," and more projected toward the 21st century.

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