Devices & Diagnostics

What could Uber do to the future of drugmaking?

Uber is changing the way we catch a cab by eliminating the hack license and a taxi company. The passenger clicks, asks and someone drives up. What if drug researchers could remove a middleman in the same way? Imagine they call out, Uber style, for help developing one of their nascent medical treatments? Then, a […]

Uber is changing the way we catch a cab by eliminating the hack license and a taxi company. The passenger clicks, asks and someone drives up.

What if drug researchers could remove a middleman in the same way? Imagine they call out, Uber style, for help developing one of their nascent medical treatments? Then, a Big Pharma company drives up at your service. Could you say farewell to the research university that’s typically part of this connection?

I’ll buy that approach as one potential future just a few hours into BIO 2014, the global showcase of biotechnology, held this week in San Diego. Something has to give in the lengthy and painful process of developing drugs and other therapies. The BIO agenda is peppered with think-differently approaches. But you’re now more frequently hearing about early results of these experiments. It’s time to start using our imaginations and apply what’s learned no matter how it disrupts.

What can we learn, for example, from programs like GlaxoSmithKline’s Discovery Fast Track Challenge, a three-year-old program that’s hit an important milestone: one experimental treatment moved into first-in-human trials this year? The challenge was designed to eliminate the painful early contract negotiations between universities, researchers and drug companies that launch these partnerships. In this contest, researchers compete to use GSK’s chemical screening library and, if the early tests work out, they get additional GSK funding and resources to develop a new treatment.

There’s been real skepticism – like there’s been with Uber – to this streamlined approach. Last year UCLA initially told its researchers not to participate in the process, though the issue was resolved after a couple of months.

But the program is also becoming more popular. This year, with a European challenge added, GSK had 500 entries worldwide, said Pearl Huang, GSK’s vice president and head of Discovery Partners with Academia (DPAc).

Changes in life sciences move at a speed akin to the Ents in Lord of the Rings. Direct conflicts with key players are also avoided because of the thicket of regulations, need for certain partnerships and the money that’s at stake.

But there’s never been a more appropriate time to move faster to shave years off the drug development process. There are fewer NIH dollars for research; the whole healthcare business model is being transformed; cities and non-profit organizations are offering the clean rooms, labs and resources that use to be exclusive to universities; and big drug companies, never ones for much original thinking, are desperate for a bigger pipeline of new approaches.

Uber shows there’s less tolerance for inefficiency – particularly if no one else is moving quickly to solve that problem. Attendees at this year’s BIO should not be about the making new partnerships the same way they’ve been done while listening deliberately on the sidelines to some new thinking on development new drug and therapies. It should be about taking the examples of new approaches, scaling them and challenging the orthodoxy. There are many beyond just the GSK example (even some concepts that push the drug companies aside).

Huang of GSK sees more subtle approaches that could work. To her, the Uber model as a stretch (it should be noted Uber is not without its own flaws). “Universities provide a home – a home to develop ideas,” she said. “In absence of that, they also pay the water bills and heating.”

Huang, instead, touts Scotland’s Easy Access IP Program, which allows drugmakers to more simply probe nascent research without a more complex agreement.

“The controversy is around the value of IP,” Huang said. “Not every patent is worth the same.

“It’s not a coincidence we have four collaborations with universities in Scotland,” she added.

“Water flows where there is least resistance.”

[Taxi photo from Flickr user Dave Newman]