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Re-engineering the drug-development process to speed medical advances


In a recent Opinionator blog entry, Stanford's Ben Barres, MD, PhD, gives his perspective on how the conventional approach for drug development can impede the process of turning biomedical discoveries into commercial products:

“I always sort of assumed that if I made a discovery that had immediate implications for new treatment for disease, big pharma would pick up on it and do the drug development step,” explained Ben A. Barres, Professor and Chair of Neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine, whose lab works with the M.R.F. “That’s infrequently the case. Usually things just sort of languish.”

For a discovery to reach the threshold where a pharmaceutical company will move it forward what's needed is called "translational" research - research that validates targets and reduces the risk. This involves things like replicating and standardizing studies, testing chemicals (potentially millions) against targets, and if something produces a desired reaction, modifying compounds or varying concentration levels to balance efficacy and safety (usually in rats). It is repetitive, time consuming work - often described as "grunt work." It's vital for developing cures, but it's not the kind of research that will advance the career of a young scientist in a university setting.

"Pure science is what you're rewarded for," notes Dr. Barres. "That's what you get promoted for. That's what they give the Nobel Prizes for. And yet developing a drug is a hundred times harder than getting a Nobel Prize. We really have to have the very best scientists engaged in this. For a long time this hasn't been the case. Until five or ten years ago, working on disease was kind of shunned.”

The piece goes on to report that a handful of organizations are pioneering goal-directed, collaborative models to accelerate the drug-development process. Barres is engaged in a research effort funded by one such organization, the Myelin Repair Foundation, which focuses on novel multiple sclerosis treatments.

Previously: Accelerating the translation of biomedical research into clinical applications, Why drug development is time consuming and expensive (hint: it's hard), A glimpse at the price of drugs: Why they cost what they cost and Crowdsourcing cost of drug development
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