A new report by “The Economist” laments the lack of innovation in the biopharma sector

On “The Digital Biologist” a couple of months back, I published an article about a troubling trend in the pharmaceutical industry in which R&D investment costs are soaring even as the approval rate for new drugs actually declines. One of the reasons I posited for the apparent stagnation in this sector, was the inability of corporate leaders to abandon old practices and embrace innovation and new methodologies. “Do what you’ve always done and you’ll get what you’ve always gotten”.

Now a new report from “The Economist” (sponsored by Quintiles) provides some real numbers to back up this idea – and while it may not be a strictly scientific or comprehensive survey of the sector, it does provide real evidence of a kind of corporate inertia at the highest levels, with regard to embracing new ideas and changing course from the rocky road that the industry currently finds itself on.

I would encourage you to read this interesting and well written report in full, but here are some of its major findings in summary …

Less than half of industry executives even have faith that their own R&D programs currently in place, are adequate to meet the needs of their companies.

As much of 70% of the global R&D budget for the sector may actually be wasted in fruitless programs.

Barely half of all companies who responded to the survey say that they are prioritizing change and innovation and this includes the companies who admit that the programs they do have in place are largely inadequate.

An inflexible corporate culture that fears change is cited as the leading impediment to improved innovation.

In a sector that is seen as being driven more by fear than by ambition, the companies that are doing well are those in which life science innovators are able to create a culture that recognizes and rewards effort rather than penalizing failure.

You can download a full copy of this report here

The author Gordon Webster, has spent his career working at the intersection of biology and computation and specializes in computational approaches to life science research and development.

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Papers, Scissors, Rock: A bacterial strategy game

As the old saying goes: “There’s nothing new under the Sun” and indeed it turns out that Nature also invented “Paper, Scissors, Rock” many millennia before the first kids ever settled a schoolyard dispute using this game. In a recent PNAS article, researchers from the University of Washington, Seattle describe the survival dynamics of a community of three strains of bacteria that compete for resources.

In addition to a healthy, wild type strain, there is a second strain that produces the bacterial toxin colicin as well as a bunch of other proteins that allow it to survive its own toxic strategy (without which it would be shooting itself in the proverbial foot). A third strain has evolved resistance to the colicin protein produced by the second strain, by acquiring mutations that prevent colicin from binding to its own proteins.

However, in keeping with the maxim that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, these latter two strains of bacteria pay a price for their competitive strategies. There is a significant cost in energy and resources for the bacteria that produces colicin and all of the accompanying proteins that enable it to survive its own offensive strategy. The colicin-resistant strain also pays a price insofar as the resistance mutations it needs to survive its competitor’s colicin strategy, compromise to some degree, the functions of certain vital proteins that it also needs for its general well-being.

The scenario we have then is that the colicin producing strain can outperform the wild type bacteria in the absence of the colicin resistant strain. The colicin resistant strain can outperform the colicin producing strain when the wild type strain is not around. The wild type strain can outperform the colicin resistant strain when the colicin producing strain is not around. … the bacterial equivalent of the “Paper, Scissors, Rock” game.

So what happens when all three strains are present at once? A very interesting dynamic of “survival of the weakest” emerges.

If one of the strains really starts to dominate the strain it grows better than, this actually favors its other competitor. If the toxin producing strain starts to dominate the wild type strain, this favors the growth of the toxin resistant strain. If the toxin resistant strain starts to dominate the toxin producing strain, this favors the growth of the wild type strain. If the wild type strain starts to dominate the toxin resistant strain, this favors the growth of the toxin producing strain.

“Paper, Scissors, Rock”

When the authors of the study cultured these three strains of bacteria in their experiments, this scenario is indeed what they observed in the laboratory. When all three strains were present in the same culture, the researchers consistently observed over many experiments, that no single strain emerges on top – the result of an interesting competitive scenario that actually encourages restraint amongst the players. The authors point out that this kind of competitive dynamic has also driven the evolution of behavioral traits in the natural world, such as mating.

While not exactly the same situation, this scenario kind of reminds me of that famous scene in the movie “A Beautiful Mind” in which John Nash, the great luminary in the field of game theory, has an epiphany in which he imagines himself and his colleagues, all competing for the attentions of the same pretty blonde. Sometimes it might be very much in everybody’s best interests if disputes could be settled over a game of “Paper, Scissors, Rock” instead of a barroom brawl, a showdown with law enforcement or even a war.

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