An Indictment of Scientists: The Drug Development Challenge is Productivity, Not Funding

Are we spending our drug development dollars wisely? It's not a new debate, but a new study from U.S. medical researchers suggests no. Industry funding of drug R&D is aligned with the needs of high-income countries, the report says (no big surprise), and that funding is not producing the results we should all expect.

While spending helps, productivity improvements are the real solution to rectifying imbalances between the drugs the world needs, and the drugs that the world is getting. To wit, “The challenge is to increase productivity, which is not commonly the focus of scientists.”

They continue: “Money, while necessary, is not sufficient to find new drugs. Possible solutions to improving research productivity have been offered and include decreasing the costs of clinical trials, modifying the economic incentives that pharmaceutical companies face (to favor high impact/high cost conditions), increasing the scale of research, open dissemination of negative results, and reorganizing research enterprises to bring talent, instrumentation, information, and material together in new ways. Importantly, as demonstrated by recent experience, further increases in the investment in research are probably inadequate, unless they are complemented by such non-financial factors.”

Funding for drug development does not correlate well with an increase in effective new therapies, the authors note. This is something that has been understood for some time. “While funding was correlated with disease burden, it was not associated with an increase in new therapies, even when incorporating a lag of eight years between funding and new drug approvals. Probable explanations are longer and more complex clinical trials and the associated additional cost of drug development, with current estimates ranging from $600 million to $1.2 billion.”

Whose money is being wasted? Pharmaceutical manufacturers are the largest sponsors of research in the U.S.—ranging from 32% of oncology research support to 80% of endocrine research, the report notes.