PharmaView: The Future? Let's Get Pumped Up

To survive, Steven Burrill tells Big Pharma, ignore the “gravel in the road” and embrace the disruption.

By Paul Thomas, Senior Editor

At a recent event in Chicago, the keynote speaker was introduced as the “Michael Jordan of biotechnology.” In other words, the emcee said, there will never be another quite like him. The speaker being referenced was Steven Burrill, head of Burrill & Company, whose annual reports on the state of the biopharma industry have been best-sellers for more than 25 years.

A bit of hyperbole, for sure, but Steven Burrill’s status as a biotech visionary is unquestioned, and his keynote talk was befitting of the “guru” label often applied to him. His pronouncements and predictions were bold and sweeping.

All of the world’s biggest problems—from climate change to energy sufficiency to food security—have biotech as their solution, Burrill began. “One thousand years from now, we’ll look back and see this as mankind’s greatest moment . . . Shame on us if we don’t take advantage of this opportunity.”

Burrill zeroed in on today's health care system, which he believes is essentially the same as it was 2,000 years ago. It is “episodic” in that we wait for disease to occur and then wait for doctors (today’s “tribal healers”) to tell us what to do. Too often the advice is wrong and the care doesn’t work.

All that will change soon—by 2020, Burrill said. We’ll move from a dysfunctional health care system to one that treats a “well population” more effectively. This change won’t come easily because doctors, pharmaceutical companies and other main actors within the traditional health care system “aren’t going to vote themselves off the island voluntarily.”

But pharma will play a role, and is changing, albeit begrudgingly, says Burrill. “Oceanliners called big companies are trying to move from a vertical orientation to a horizontal one and renting rather than owning everything.” If they can’t change fast enough, they’ll become irrelevant.

“Guys like Jeff Kindler at Pfizer tried to take some of these oceanliners and turn them around, but how do they do that?” he asked. They are investing in areas such as over-the-counter drugs, generics, emerging market branded generics, biosimilars, licensing, and so forth. As a result, “Big Pharma doesn’t look anything like it used to look like.”

Ultimately, pharma’s fate lies in its ability to truly innovate despite significantly greater barriers than in the past. One such roadblock, he noted, is FDA. “My friend [FDA Commissioner] Peggy Hamburg called me the other day and said, ‘I have a problem.’ And I said, ‘I know: Everybody is trying to avoid you and get into other markets in the world and come to you later.’ We have a system where FDA is going from being the gold standard in the world to becoming a late adopter.”

Despite its unfulfilled promises, personalized medicine still provides the greatest hope for change and for Big Pharma to rediscover success. “We all drank the koolaid that personalized medicine was going to be the savior of our industry,” Burrill said. “We were going to have designer drugs overnight.” This hasn’t happened, of course. “But if you stand back for a minute,” he said, “we’ve moved from a uniformity of disease to understanding the vast variability of patients” and moving from an “episodic sickness-care” world to one of preemptive and increasingly personalized medicine.

“It’s not a personalized medicine problem” to date, he said. “It’s spurious science. There’s gravel in the road, but don’t underestimate that we’re going to improve our knowledge and information.” When that happens, personalized medicine will truly take root.

Ever the optimist, Burrill made sure to infuse the audience with as much of a carpe-diem attitude as he could. “This is an extraordinarily opportunistic time,” he said. “You ought to be pumped up about it.”

Will everything really change for pharma and healthcare by 2020? Doubtful. Burrill’s full of a lot of bluster, to be sure. But he earned his speaker’s fee. It felt good for a few hours that morning in Chicago to be pumped up about the future.

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