What is innovation? Like “strategy” and “leadership” it’s a term we frequently use, something we all seek in the biotech/pharma industry, yet it’s hard to define, even harder to develop or predict.

What is the future for innovative medicines in our industry’s pipeline? was the title of a session that I attended yesterday afternoon at BIO 2011, the annual meeting of the Biotechnology Industry Association (BIO) in Washington DC.

BIO 2011 Innovation Pipeline Session 300x168 BIO 2011 What is the future for innovative medicines in our industry’s pipeline?Moderated by John Mendlein, the panel contained some R&D heavy weights:

  • Tom Daniel, President of Research & Early Development, Celgene
  • Charles Homcy, Venture Partner, Third Rock Ventures
  • Moncef Slaoui, Chairman R&D, GlaxoSmithKline
  • Doug Williams, Executive VP, R&D, Biogen Idec

Several people in the audience live tweeted the key messages of the speakers, and I encourage you to review them, if interested.  The take homes that I took from this session were:

Innovation can be incremental or major breakthroughs

Many people think of innovation as a major breakthrough. Well worn clichés such as “ground breaking”, “game changing” come to mind.  In pharma, I’d cite imatinib (Glivec®/Gleevec®) in CML as an example.  In the consumer world, the Dyson vacuum cleaner jumps out to me.  Something completely redesigned and made better = innovation.

However, incremental change can also be innovation if it has an impact.  Take a new drug formulation that instead of daily dosing moves it to monthly doses and in the process improves patient compliance and adherence.  That’s incremental innovation.

“Incremental versus major breakthrough” reminds me of scientific research.  Most published papers are incremental, only rarely is there a major paradigm shift and landmark study.  Only a few PhD students undertake truly novel research, instead the majority pursue incremental avenues associated with their supervisor’s interests. An oversimplification perhaps but there’s some truth to it.

Understanding science enables Innovation

Companies should focus their energies on disease mechanisms where the basic science has reached an inflection point of knowledge i.e. there is enough information for us to apply. This is why the work of research organizations such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is so important. In an area where there is the disease knowledge emerging, you can then put together a team of people who understand the science and biology of the disease.  This does not guarantee innovation, but allows the identification of opportunities and in my view “enables innovation.”

Innovation will come from focus on molecular pathology of disease

Drug development is no longer focused on treating symptoms but on the underlying mechanism of a disease.  Medicine itself is moving in this direction with personalized medicine and drugs that target specific mutations of genes e.g crizotinib in lung cancer.  In a complex world of overlapping pathways (cancer and inflammation was the example cited), drug development innovation is going to come from understanding the molecular pathology of a disease. The terms “translational medicine” was not used in the session, but this is what comes to mind.  Understanding science is key to success.

What is the future for innovative medicines in our industry’s pipeline? The panelists didn’t actually answer this question directly, but my view is that it is promising.

 BIO 2011 What is the future for innovative medicines in our industry’s pipeline?

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