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In a class of its own: Pharma is unlike any other industry; pass it on.
09-16-2005
by Randall C. Willis  |  Email the author
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I must admit to wondering sometimes why anyone in his or her right mind would even consider a career in the pharmaceutical industry.
 
Don't get me wrong, as editor of a magazine (past and present) that targets the drug discovery arena, I am very much glad that people do actually participate in this area. Likewise, as someone who takes medications on a daily basis and has seen significant improvements in my quality of life because of them, I am also grateful for the efforts of these intrepid bench and business warriors.
 
But as I read the newspapers and listen to the rhetoric on television and radio, I sometimes wonder why these people haven't chucked it all in for something that is a little more reputable…you know, insurance or something.
 
The last couple of years seem to have been particularly difficult for the pharmaceutical industry as one media outlet after another has pointed out the shortcomings of the drug companies. From the tops of their electronic mountains, the media shout about the gouging price tags associated with medical treatment. And in response to explanations citing growing R&D and regulatory costs associated with producing next-generation drugs, the media decries the seeming lack of quality in today's drugs as one after another is pulled off the shelf or questioned for reasons of patient safety.
 
Of course, all of this media attention means increased scrutiny by politicians and special interest groups looking for more personal coverage and increased voter awareness. In the long run, it seems, all that this extra scrutiny accomplishes is ever-widening regulatory hoops for companies to jump through, which raises the drug prices, which raises rhetoric levels.
 
While it is unrealistic to think that all pharmaceutical companies are in the business to improve people's lives and to make the safest products available, I am confident that the majority of the players are. Unfortunately, what the outside community doesn't seem to realize is that the pharmaceutical industry is unlike any other endeavor.
 
When an automaker is faced with a bad review in Consumer Reports or less than stellar performance in a crash test, its engineers can go back to the drawing board and see what went wrong. In some cases, they can introduce any required fixes through a simple parts recall or introduce new technologies in the next model year to move off the line. No muss, some fuss, and a little solid PR, and they are back on the road.
 
Likewise, when a couple of people get sick from eating at a certain restaurant chain and the illness is linked back to contaminated hamburger, company reps can move in swiftly to replace the bad batch of meat with clean products. Again, with a little PR work, the chain can rescue its falling bottom line and return to financial health.
 
Unfortunately, neither of these options is open to the pharmaceutical industry. When clinicians find a problem with a drug, the company can't simply take the report, make a couple of tweaks to the formulation, and restock pharmacy shelves. By developing products that function at the molecular level and undergo unparalleled regulatory scrutiny, companies are stuck taking the public thrashing and watching global cynicism mount.
 
As we continue to report in these pages, better early-phase screening (Phase 0, model organisms, in silico simulations) will help, but ultimately it is impossible to create a drug that is safe for everyone…especially when physicians prescribe off-label uses and patients mix medications. Pharmacogenomics, likewise, is a tool and not a panacea, and personalized medicine can only be taken so far as feasible drug markets can only be so small.
 
In the long run, only vigilance on everyone's part (company, physician, patient, media) and communication throughout the industry and with the media (the eyes and ears of the market) will make for safer drugs. More than in any other industry, pharmaceutical companies and their customers must behave like partners, for unlike other industries, neither side can succeed without the other.
 
Randall C Willis
Executive Editor

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