Why Are So Few Blockbuster Drugs Invented Today?

Dan Hurley in The New York Times:

Mag-16insulin-t-articleLargeOn Sept. 25, 1990, James D. Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, and at the time the director of the National Center for Human Genome Research, wrote a letter to this paper making a prediction: “The ability to sequence DNA quickly and cheaply will also provide the technological basis for a new era in drug development.”

…If you read them now, the claims made for genomics in the 1990s sound a bit like predictions made in the 1950s for flying cars and anti-gravity devices,” Jack Scannell, an industry analyst, told me. But rather than speeding drug development, genomics may have slowed it down. So far it has produced fewer returns on greater investments. Scannell and Brian Warrington, who worked for 40 years inventing drugs for pharmaceutical companies, published a grim paper in 2012 that showed the plummeting efficiency of the pharmaceutical industry. They found that for every billion dollars spent on research and development since 1950, the number of new drugs approved has fallen by half roughly every nine years, meaning a total decline by a factor of 80.

…“I’ve done an about-face,” said Swinney, who estimates that more than 80 percent of research funding is still spent on target-based approaches. “The target-based research made possible by genomics is cool and fascinating,” he went on. But, he conceded, “you know what? We almost never use this information before we discover a drug. . . . This whole idea is too simplistic for the overall complexity of biology.”

More here.