The pharmaceutical industry has a huge and growing number of critics and detractors. At times, the relentlessly negative tone can become discouraging. For that reason, it was extremely inspiring to hear an industry insider reframe the discussion of pharma’s challenges and to remind listeners of the reason their companies are in business in the first place.
At the New York Pharma Forum on Dec. 7, Takeda’s EVP and CMO Tadataka Yamada, had some incisive suggestions on how pharma should measure its success and approach the daunting problems of today. Dr. Yamada had spent several years working for the Gates Foundation and described some of what he saw there.
He discussed the market pressures we hear about so often―the fact that U.S. market growth will be slower, that Europe’s market will shrink, and that everyone seems to be looking to emerging markets for growth.
However, he said, those emerging markets are facing problems that we often fail to comprehend, among them the fact that 8 million children under the age of five die each year, unnecessarily, from easily preventable and treatable diseases. “It’s hard to talk about intellectual property issues in a country where 3 million children are dying each year,” he said.
“We can’t succeed unless we become partners in solving the biggest problems that society faces, and not only in emerging, but also in developed markets. As long as pharma is seen as focusing only on the financial aspects of the system, the industry will have a very difficult road ahead of it.”
What many in the industry lack today, he said, is a sense of urgency. Yes, there is urgency about grants and FDA approval, but nothing creates a greater sense of urgency about the broader issues pharma faces today than the fact that millions of children are dying. He described visiting a hospital in Mozambique, during his work with the Gates Foundation. A mother brought a young child in who was breathing 150 breaths a minute. She died within minutes, ostensibly from malaria, but really from malnourishment. “This episode repeats itself 8 million times each year.” Most people cannot fully comprehend this.
“We need to think of this problem with the same sense of urgency that we view buyers, government, regulators and our competitors. We need to internalize the problem.” He cited Merck’s River Blindness program as a success story that resulted from such thinking, also mentioning pharma’s success in eradicating smallpox and almost destroying polio.
In addition to a renewed sense of urgency about global healthcare issues, Dr. Yamada said, pharma needs more revolutionary innovations, such as the thinking that transformed gastroenterology by allowing the cure, via antibiotics, rather than merely the treatment of peptic ulcers.
Today, there is a real need for such innovation in the treatment of tuberculosis, he said, which affects a growing number of people, not only in India, China and Eastern Europe, but even in the U.S., as increasingly drug-resistant strains develop.
He recalled the Gates’ Grand Challenges Exploration, which required a two-page application, and no peer review (because, the argument went, innovators have no peers). Among the applications received as potential malaria cures, one Nobel Prize winning scientist suggested that the odor receptor on mosquitos be identified, and proposed working on agents called “confusants” to block that receptor. The product is now in clinical development today, Dr. Yamada said.
Another innovation from Johns Hopkins involved immunizing humans with an antigen from the mosquitoes, causing humans to make the antibody for that antigen, which mosquitoes would suck up when they stung. Yet another solution involved placing devices like airport security screening systems within villages. These would be set at a specific frequency to cause parasite cell death, another unusual malaria treatment.
Of course, Dr. Yamada noted, only one in a thousand such suggestions would work, but that success would be worth it. “Pharma needs a willingness to fail and to fail often because success is built on the back of failure.”
He quoted a former CEO of Smith-Kline Beecham as saying, “If you’re not keeping score, you’re just practicing, not playing.”
“It’s easy to keep score and measuring success by the number of product launches and IND’s, Dr. Yamada said, “but how about tracking the number of lives saved and the overall advancement of society? As an industry, we’re bad at that; we’re only following surrogate markers.”
Partnerships will be needed to do this, and they should include WHO, governments, health authorities, patient groups and physicians groups, Dr. Yamada concluded, mentioning an example of a Gates Foundation success, a meningitis treatment using IP developed at a small Dutch company and commercialized by an Indian company, at a cost of under 50 cents a dose. Gates had invested $70 million over 10 years for the project. Dr. Yamada quoted Bill Gates’ address to the graduates of Harvard a few years ago. “Humanity’s greatest advances lie not in its discoveries but in how they are applied to reduce inequity.” It is just this type of revolutionary innovation, brought about by a sense of urgency and concern for the big picture, that will also allow pharma to establish credibility with the public and lasting success.