Nobel Prizes Underscore Benefits of Research, but Also Highlight ‘Worst Instincts’ of Industry: Report

Nobel Prize

Last week, the pharma world applauded when research pioneers received the Nobel Prizes for medicine and chemistry. The recipients, James Allison and Tasuku Honjo for medicine, and Frances Arnold, George Smith and Gregory Winter for chemistry, have blazed a trail that led to the development of significant medications that have helped countless patients and generated billions of dollars in revenue for drugmakers.

Allison and Honjo’s research paved the way for checkpoint inhibitors in oncology, such as Merck’s Keytruda and Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo, and the work of Arnold, Smith and Winter was key for the development of AbbVie’s Humira, the world’s best-selling drug.

The research conducted by these brilliant scientists was key, but their discoveries would not have led to the development of key medicines without the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars by pharma companies. The investments and risks though can come with a cost, Bloomberg reported in a new analysis released over the weekend. In its report, Bloomberg said that pharma’s “efforts to maximize (financial) gains” has led to the coloring of R&D decisions and creating barriers to the entry of competing medications that can add costs to the health care system.

In its analysis, Bloomberg pointed to a number of examples of financial concerns. With the case of checkpoint inhibitors, Bloomberg pointed to the number of trial failures, either as stand-alone treatments or in combination with other medications that have led to some hype that “has outpaced results so far.”  

“And while some of the thousands of combo trials currently being run have a compelling scientific underpinning, many others are the product of wishful thinking or are arguably wasteful duplications of effort,” Bloomberg wrote.

The article points out the high price tag of the checkpoint inhibitors, with Keytruda having an annual price of $150,000. If combination therapies become widespread, Bloomberg said that could cause some healthcare budgets to buckle.

With Humira, a medication that brings in nearly $20 billion annually for AbbVie, the company has done all it could to protect that revenue stream since it was first approved to treat rheumatoid arthritis in 2002. The use of patent protections has been good for the company’s shareholders, but Bloomberg said the lack of competition means the drug will continue to have a high price – one that AbbVie will likely increase before the patent protection expires, Bloomberg said.

As it closed out its analysis, Bloomberg said the Nobel Prizes represent the best of science. The article goes on to say that the pharmaceutical industry’s ability to turn those discoveries into approved medications is also laudable.

“But the industry needs to do a better job of grappling with how success tends to bring out its worst instincts, and regulators need to do a better job of curbing them,” Bloomberg said in closing.

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