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Pharma's Problems

In an analysis column in the British Medical Journal, York University's Joel Lexchin and Donald Light from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey say that the "widely touted 'innovation crisis' in pharmaceuticals is a myth," and that the real problem in pharma is that current incentives reward companies for making drugs that are only marginally better than existing products.

But at In the Pipeline, Derek Lowe says that this opinion is, in a word, "wrong." For one thing, he says, one of the authors' opinions on the industry should be taken with a grain of salt. "Light is the man who's publicly attached his name to an estimate that developing a new drug costs about $43 million dollars," Lowe says. "When I bring up that figure around people who actually develop drugs ... it always provokes startled expressions and sudden laughter."

Moreover, he says, that pharma is in crisis is made evident by the thousands of people that have been laid off in the last few years, and in the R&D centers that have been shut down or outsourced.

And further, Lowe adds, drugs that are being produced today — even of the "me-too" variety — are not simply the same but with minor variations, as Lexchin and Light claim. "The reason that some new drugs make only small advances on existing therapies is not because we like it that way, and it's especially not because we planned it that way," he says. "This happens because we try to make big advances, and we fail. Then we take what we can get."