Therapeutic Dose: Manufacturing Phil: A Drug's Life

A Pfizer public education campaign and its cute mascot are praiseworthy, but neglect to mention the key stage in a drug's life. What will it take to make manufacturing a hot button issue and to better educate the public?

By Paul Thomas, Managing Editor

Given the current consumer and media backlash against drug makers, there’s a real need for clear and sober public education about what drug companies really do. For its part, Pfizer recently introduced Phil the Pill, a lovable little blue tablet mascot with bulging eyes and a wide grin. Phil stars in Pfizer’s brochure, “Where Do New Medicines Come From?”, which seeks to clarify common myths and misperceptions about how drugs come into being.

Subtitled “Phil the Pill’s Journey from Laboratory to Medicine Cabinet,” the leaflet takes us on a magical ride from drug discovery to patenting to clinical trials, all the way to when, sporting a gray beard and cane, an aged Phil loses his patent and is put out to pasture.

Pfizer is actively distributing the brochures in doctors’ offices, clinics, hospitals and at various events at which Pfizer takes part, says Francisco Gebauer, a company spokesperson. You can also find Phil in cyberspace by doing a search on www.pfizer.com. Phil gets around, often with his Spanish-speaking compañero, Pepe Pildora.

Unfortunately, the brochure neglects to tell us about the most critical period of Phil’s life — his formative days in the manufacturing plant. We learn nothing of how he is mixed, pressed, coated, or packaged. And we learn nothing about you, Phil’s creators. What a shame, for the public and for you.

Manufacturing is not in the Phil brochures because it is not a “hot button” issue for the public, says Gebauer. We know the hot button issues. Prescription drug costs. Corporate profits. Importation. Clinical trials. Whether the Chiron flu vaccine fiasco will elevate manufacturing to hot button status remains to be seen. Regardless, all these issues have the industry in defense mode. PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, is working overtime these days to counterpunch Marcia Angell’s new book, “The Real Truth About the Drug Companies.” (Click here to read PhRMA’s rebuttal.).

I don’t mean to belittle Pfizer’s Phil campaign. If nothing else, it is upbeat and proactive. But people don’t know how drugs are made. They don’t know much about what it is you — engineers, chemists, operations professionals — do day in and day out, the mixing of powders, the reading of gauges, the analyzing of data (the eating of lunch!). And, they don’t know what skill, patience and sweat go into manufacturing Phil and his kin. This has something to do with the proprietary nature of the business, but certainly there can be more public education about conventional processes. It would go a long way toward a collective understanding of how complex and risky the drug business is.

Professor Charles Fombrun of the Stern School of Business at New York University is given credit with coining the term “reputational capital,” a sort of long-term asset that a company accumulates over time as it makes a name for itself and builds trust among customers, clients and stakeholders. Like a bank account, it grows and compounds when regular contributions are made, and is there to be drawn from on rainy days. Reputational capital is what allows a Johnson & Johnson, for example, to survive and thrive following a Tylenol tampering crisis.

The entire pharmaceutical industry’s reputational capital has been seriously depleted. Manufacturing can help change that. Shedding light on how remarkable the drug-making process can be will help a jaded public better appreciate drug makers. In preparing a feature for this issue on microreactor technology (see "Going Small, Thinking Big"), I was struck by how chemists and engineers talked about the beauty and precision of reactions and their work. There was often a giddy pitch in their voices as they spoke of yields, purities, throughput, and consistency. For most of you, what you do has both poetry and pride. People should know this.

Shedding light on manufacturing is what this magazine is all about, of course. I’m extremely proud to now be a part of it, this being just my second issue with Pharmaceutical Manufacturing. Our mission is to loudly and accurately chronicle what you do. You in the plant will always be our primary audience, but perhaps we can reach further, with our web site, with several new monthly e-newsletters, with our media contacts, with word of mouth. A thousand points of light.

Job one is to tell the untold story behind Phil the Pill. “As we continue to develop and update the Phil the Pill brochure,” Gebauer says, “we would certainly consider including an explanation of the pharmaceutical manufacturing process.” If you have any knowledge of Phil’s hidden past, how he came to be the pill he is today, don’t hesitate to give me a call.

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