Rethinking the Lengthy Path of Cancer Drug Development

The average drug takes eight years to develop and costs more than $800 million, according to a new study performed at the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development in Boston.

Shift from traditional drug development to the most promising biopharmaceuticals developed via living cells, and that average cost skyrockets to $1.2 billion.

As one might expect, drug companies are both bogged down by the lengthy research process, as well as concerned by the massive funds required to pay for prescription drug medication. To add to the high financial costs, keep in mind that bills that amount to millions of dollars don’t just apply to successful drugs – but the countless failures as well.

For as long as anyone can remember, the pharmaceutical industry has operated on this linear, trial-by-error method. Now, in an effort to streamline the entire process to save both time and money, industry luminaries are diligently seeking more sustainable paths.

One such project, based out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is gaining interest among both federal health authorities and for-profit drug manufacturers. Known as the New Drug Development Paradigms, the MIT program’s short-term goal is to identify sources of bottlenecks in the current drug development process.

While this can be dramatically helpful, MIT also hopes to develop long-term solutions by creating new prediction models, streamlining communications about the biology of diseases, and improving inclusion that allows for earlier participation from patients, health care providers and regulators.

The ideas are intriguing, but may be met with some resistance from those who are accustomed to the current process. For example, MIT suggests that medical companies work with each other by sharing information about compounds that they have given up on due to safety or other issues. For an industry that is tied to proprietary knowledge and profits, this may be a tough pill to swallow.

However, it is because drug companies do not share information on early stage dead-end projects that different research groups routinely head down the same path (eventually finding only the same dead-end). Perhaps the idea of saving millions from investments in previously disproved technologies will be enough to spur cooperation.

Another program that MIT has initiated, in conjunction with Harvard Business School, is a system called Pharmer’s Market. This online tool uses crowd-sourcing to predict the probability that a drug will succeed. The program, which was just initiated last month, has calculated the success rates of several cancer drugs currently in clinical trials. If time proves these predictions correct, medical companies may be able to pinpoint which drugs are most likely to succeed so that they can maximize research funds.