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Big PharmaCan Pharmas Work Together on Genomics Techs? Not Likely


Someday, when there are only three big pharmas worldwide, no squabbles over intellectual property, and no government regulators enforcing antitrust violations, big pharma will be able to collaborate pre-competitively on developing new genomics-derived technologies.

Until then, says Chris Reilly, head of global discovery at AstraZeneca, who spoke at the Molecular Medicine Tri-Conference in San Francisco in late March, there’s little hope that big pharma might work together to more efficiently create repositories of biological knowledge useful for all researchers engaged in drug discovery.

But it does sound like it might be a good idea. Given the level of secrecy and duplication within the pharma industry, it seems intuitive that many cases of barking up the wrong tree could be avoided if early stage pharma researchers worked together on research deemed pre-competitive. Deciding exactly what kind of data is pre-competitive, naturally, is the sticking point.

Out of a panel discussion featuring Reilly and two other free-thinking pharma managers, there did emerge an ever-so-slight consensus that early stage technology development should be something pharma researchers can share freely. The only real competitive advantages individual pharmas have over each other, says Robert Ruffolo, president of Wyeth Research and a former high-level manager at GlaxoSmithKline, lie in the processes that managers devise for coordinating drug discovery and development. “Everyone says, ‘We have the best scientists.’ Well, they’re all the same,” Ruffolo says. “It’s all about the best processes … and how you spend your money.”

So, asked one conference attendee, why wouldn’t systems biology represent one area of early stage technology development that big pharma could work together on? In theory, says Ruffolo, it is. “It’s pre-competitive, yes, and multiple pharma investment could make a difference [in pushing the field forward],” he says. “But for the Lee Hood-type stuff, the payout period is 20 to 30 years down the road. … Systems biology is valuable and practical, but the time frame is too far out for this industry.”

As an alternative suggestion for how pharmas might work together, AstraZeneca’s Reilly says pharmas might want to form consortia to invest in unproven technologies as a way to fill the shoes that the VC community seems to be vacating.

But Ruffolo doesn’t advance much hope that such ideas will come to fruition. He’s tried to get pharmas to collaborate in the past, he says, and the IP, regulatory, and especially legal hurdles have done little to encourage the prospect of pre-competitive cooperation. Pharmas could benefit from working together, but will they? His answer: “I don’t think so.”

— John S. MacNeil


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