Oversaturation vs. tunnel vision

Pharma has a difficult balance between trying to tackle many targets and do well with the ones it already had to work on

Jeffrey Bouley
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One of the things that drives me nuts when I go to the grocery story is heading down the aisles and seeing a slew of new products that seem to be designed solely to part me with my money, and make less space for established items that I already like more than they do to enhance my life. Truly, I have to wonder if adding marshmallow bits to a cereal or making a chocolate version of a healthy oat-based staple of the breakfast table is really necessary. And cheeseburger-flavored Doritos? Don't get me started.

I admit that I sometimes feel the same way when I see multiple iterations of drugs, whether over-the-counter or prescription, or when I see large-scale research efforts that cover the same ground but with different budgets and different researchers.

Then I realize that it's just that growing "grumpy old guy" persona that started to kick in just before I officially entered middle age. Yes, sometimes pharma companies do simply re-tool a product or create a knock-off version of something for the sole purpose of capturing market share and providing something that seems new, but really isn't.

But so many other times, products that seem similar—particularly when it's a new chemical compound from the same company for the same target or a similar-acting one from a rival company—need to be pursued for the very reason that subtle differences can have big impacts in terms of efficacy, adverse reactions and off-target effects. I was reminded of that recently in writing an article on Amarin's promising new omega-3-based triglyceride-lowering drug, which on the surface seems a lot like GSK's Lovaza, but which has some clear and distinct advantages and limitations.

On the research side, I also got the reminder of how looks can be deceiving when I wrote two stories for the December issue of ddn that covered the 1000 Genomes Project and the PGP-1K, respectively. When you have two high-profile projects doing complete human genome sequencing with the magic number 1,000 involved, you start to ask questions like: "How is your project different from that one?"

But the fact is they do have different focuses and different approaches, and because of that, they aren't duplicated efforts that are redundantly spending money, but rather two projects doing work that will likely provide support to each other's efforts in the long run, as well as each provide distinct and unique contributions to genomics.

Because, in the end, if there's anything we've learned from decades of pharma and biotech breakthroughs, failures and other newsworthy outcomes, the human body and human diseases are an arena where we aren't ever likely to have all the answers, and might be lucky to get even a handful of them, no matter how many similar or even duplicative efforts we have.

Too much money poured into certain areas, even important ones like cancer, can mean oversaturation and dilution of research dollars that might be needed on other disease areas. But too little diversity in the research and development sphere, and we can end up with tunnel vision—and look where that got us when we took our eyes off new antibiotic research and ended up with a whole lot of resistant pathogens and not enough ways to fight them.

This is slightly updated version of a column that appeared at our blog, which launched in late August. To check out our other blog posts there and comment on this one or any others, visit http://ddnonline.wordpress.com/.


Jeffrey Bouley

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