Quitting Time? The Role Failure Plays in Pharmaceutical Innovations

scientist in lab coat with head in hands at lab bench with pile of pills in front of her

Nobody wants to experience failure, but everybody does occasionally. Some experience failure more than others. This is the case for those who work in medical research, as failure is so often a part of the job while on the road to scientific discovery. While many consider failure to be a completely negative experience, that’s not always the case, as every failure is still a lesson learned. Occasionally, these failures can even lead to some of the biggest breakthroughs in medical history.

Turning failure into innovation

In a recent article, the former president of Pfizer Global Research and Development details just how failures in the pharmaceutical industry can actually lead to innovations later down the line. In his article, he talks about how the study of a drug that was designed to raise HDL-cholesterol ended up failing to show that the drug was able to help prevent heart attacks and stroke. But this failure turned out to be a pretty big breakthrough for the pharmaceutical industry, as it ended up proving that elevating levels of HDL-cholesterol through medication had little to no impact on heart attacks and strokes, thus ending the theory that increasing one’s amount of “good cholesterol” could help prevent such medical emergencies.

One of the most famous cases of a failed drug study turning into a new breakthrough is the story of Sildenafil, which is more commonly known by the brand name Viagra. Sildenafil was originally developed to treat high blood pressure, but it failed completely at that task. However, the researchers discovered that it had a certain side effect that helped cement its place as the go-to medication for erectile dysfunction.

The world of medicine is filled with stories like these, where an otherwise complete failure of a study ends up leading to great innovations. However, even more common are the numerous failures that, while not immediately leading to new breakthroughs on their own, allow for a chance to learn and offer a better understanding of a disease.

Stepping stones

In any well-designed study, a failure should still give valuable new knowledge about what is being studied. Over time, the lessons learned from hundreds, or even thousands, of failures all build up the knowledge needed for innovation. These small stepping stones are the building blocks to many discoveries in the world of medicine and most modern treatments wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for hundreds of others failing first.

In 2014, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) came out with a report detailing the number of potential cancer treatments that didn’t have any success during their clinical trials. This report helps demonstrate just how many failures it takes before creating a successful treatment. One of the findings in the report showed that out of 177 potential treatments for lung cancer, only ten of them managed to be approved, which is around a 5.6% success rate.

Many industries would consider a 5.6% rate of success to be an abject failure. However, low percentages like this are the norm for the field of medicine and companies will account for this when investing in research and development.

While it may seem like a waste of money and resources, a lot is learned from every failed study and progress is made towards understanding the ailment better and finding a treatment that does work. This is why it’s so important for researchers, and those who fund them, to not give up even after failing multiple times. Every failure is still another step towards success.

Fearing failure

Despite the fact that it is completely normal in the field of medicine for most studies to fail, it’s still easy for researchers to become discouraged. Many even end up contemplating abandoning their careers after many years of working towards finding a treatment and coming up with little success.

As if suffering from failure wasn’t already discouraging enough on its own, the fear of failure can become crippling. This fear can keep researchers in the pharmaceutical industry from taking as many risks, which results in less progress towards developing new treatments. If researchers are too afraid of failure to take risks, then there’s no way that they, and others in their field, can learn from these failures.

Because of these reasons, and no doubt for many others, a lot of prominent researchers often speak about dealing with failure and confronting the discouragement that inevitably comes with it. It is their hope that they can help the next generation of medical researchers for when they, too, are confronted with repeated failure. If future researchers are able to endure through failure, then who knows what innovations may come about from their efforts.

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