Faster, Better, Cheaper - Can the Pharma Industry Learn from the IT Industry's Approach to Research?

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Can the pharmaceutical industry learn a thing or two from the world of information technology when it comes to not giving up too soon on research?

There’s an interesting article this week by Daily Tech in which Andrew Grove, former Intel CEO, continues to poke and prod the pharmaceutical industry for what, in his opinion, constitutes abandoning research too early.

Grove makes some good points. We spend much more time figuring out why potential medical treatments should work than we do figuring out why they didn’t work as expected after a trial. Just chucking the project is not necessarily the answer. After all, years of ICI 46,474 research was shelved after it failed its tests in women as a contraceptive in the 1970s. Yet, what would the state of breast cancer treatment be today if Craig Jordan hadn’t taken the time to study the drug (now known as tamoxifen) under a different lens?

Still, to hold IT up as a shining model for pharmaceutical research may be stretching it a bit. As Daily Tech pointed out in the article, biology and electronics are two completely different animals; you tend to have a lot more leverage when you are designing a product based on specs that are largely set by you or other people. From that respect, the target you’re designing against is not only readily accessible, but also, in some respects, movable. Not so when dealing with Mother Nature. She keeps specs to herself until a researcher teases them out, and there’s no going to the table with her for concessions when she throws a curveball.

Furthermore, IT’s frequent shoot-from-the-hip approach to innovation doesn’t fly very high in regulated industry because, well, it’s regulated. This not only makes the process of creating something new a bit trickier, it also makes it much more time consuming and expensive. “Better, faster, cheaper” is all well and good as long as you don’t kill or harm anyone in the process, because FDA and the general public don’t like it when that happens. Can you imagine where Bill Gates would be today if he had to prove that every Microsoft product was safe and effective before release?

That said, Grove ought to be commended for his investment in academic translational medicine programs. Bringing worlds together has a history of yielding positive results, and I look forward to watching it help the medical research dinosaur feel a little lighter on its feet.

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