A Different Approach to Drug Discovery

By Gwynne, Peter | Research-Technology Management, July/August 2011 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

A Different Approach to Drug Discovery


Gwynne, Peter, Research-Technology Management


During the past decade, most large pharmaceutical firms have seen their drug pipelines decline. But Novartis AG, headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, has a different tale to tell. Last year, it received approval for four new drugs. The company has about 50 new medications in late-stage clinical trials and roughly 90 in its early-stage pipeline. A major reason for that success: a new philosophy of drug discovery.

The philosophy driving Novartis's recent drug development efforts isn't focused on creating the next blockbuster treatment for high cholesterol. Rather than pursuing the kind of surefire blockbusters that have characterized the pharmaceutical industry, Novartis's process focuses on the unmet medical needs of smaller groups of patients. Medical researchers work in a research organization that reports directly to the CEO. And the CEO and board of directors are committed to maintaining the culture that's produced the company's robust drug pipeline.

Instead of working with marketers from the earliest stages of discovery, scientists in the eight-year-old Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR) collaborate with doctors who treat actual patients. NIBR researchers at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, headquarters and eight other locations worldwide also seek medications that treat fewer patients than the traditional blockbusters. Compensating for the lower sales of each new drug is the set of insights gained in the efforts to treat less well-known diseasesinsights that can lead to yet more drugs.

Those insights stem in large measure from a scientific approach to drug discovery that focuses on molecular pathways. That focus is particularly relevant to understanding the causes of several rare genetic disorders. These are the diseases that large pharmaceutical companies generally ignore because they involve few patients and hence have little revenue potential.

"Our focus is on the patient and trying to meet unmet medical needs," says Dhaval Patel, head of NIBR Europe. "That's easy to say, but [NIBR president] Mark Fishman has created a culture for us in which we get to walk the talk. We have the freedom to pursue areas in which we believe there is an unmet need and we understand the scientific basis for which that disease is active."

NIBR researchers study the molecular pathways involved in rare diseases in hopes that those pathways will lead them both to remedies for those diseases and to greater understanding of the pathways that stimulate more common diseases. For example, a drug developed by Novartis to treat an autoinflammatory ailment that affects about one person in a million has also proven effective in controlling the much more common condition of gout. The most recent success of the approach occurred last fall, when the United States Food and Drug Administration approved Afinitor, the first drug for patients with benign brain tumors associated with the rare genetic disorder tuberous sclerosis.

Changing the research culture

The road to the pathways approach began in 2002, when Novartis chairman Daniel Vasella and his board recruited Mark Fishman, a cardiologist at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital, as head of the company's global research enterprise. Fishman quickly changed the research culture. "When he first got here, the commercial part of the organization had a strong influence on how the research part did their work-what to pursue, what diseases to study," Patel says. "One of the first things Mark and Dan Vasella did was to create NIBR as a separate organization that reports to the CEO, not to the pharma division. That act in itself really separated research from the commercial organization. Mark's insistence on highlighting that separation, rewarding scientific achievements, and pursuing unmet medical needs really did create the right culture."

Not surprisingly, Fishman's appointment met with plenty of opposition within the company. "According to those who were here, the first few years of Mark's time were controversial," says Patel, who was himself recruited in 2006 from an academic position, as chief of the division of rheumatology, allergy, and immunology at the University of North Carolina.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

A Different Approach to Drug Discovery
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?