Putting Cancer Numbers in Context

Putting Cancer Numbers in Context

06.13.12 | By

I appreciated Bruce Booth's thoughtful discussion of the investment side of cancer research in Forbes last week. Since PhRMA had just released our Medicines in Development for Cancer report - finding nearly 1,000 potential new medicines being studied for various cancers - this was definitely an issue that was on my mind.

However, Mr. Booth's investor perspective led him to be a bit more skeptical about this research than I would have been.

For example, no one in the biopharmaceutical sector thinks or suggests that all of those 1,000 new medicines will be clinical successes, gaining FDA approval and reaching patients. That's quite simply not the business model of this industry. Even the most comprehensive clinical research is unpredictable, fraught with potential for failure at any stage in the game.

Biopharmaceutical companies know this going in. But they push forward anyway, because without taking a chance on each medicine, they would never have that eventual success. Just last week I heard a colleague say: "It's like learning to parallel park. You're just not going to get it the first time." A simplistic analogy, but the lesson is clear: You've got to fail before you can succeed.

Mr. Booth also skipped over another important point. It's the reason why we have so many compounds being studied - and why many of them seem to be focused on a handful of cancers (he cites "8 targets are addressed by >20% of the projects," which I can't confirm on my own).

Quite simply, the growth in our understanding of diseases like cancers means that we are increasingly able to develop different ways to target the same disease. Why do we need to do this? Because individual patients are not affected in the same way by different diseases, and they don't respond in the same way to medicines. We need treatment options to attack different genetic variations of tumors. And we need treatment options for patients who haven't responded to the initial therapeutic regimen.

We also build on our previous knowledge throughout the R&D process. Research is collaborative, it is cyclical, and it is cumulative. If biopharmaceutical research companies rested on their laurels once a new medicine gained approval, they would not be doing their jobs - not when there are so many different directions in which to take their research, and not when one of those forks in the road might lead to a new breakthrough for patients.

If anything, Mr. Booth's article is a great example of the complexities of clinical research, and how many factors have to be taken into consideration.

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