Often you will hear people talking about why drugs are expensive: it’s the greedy pharmaceutical companies, the patent system, the government, capitalism itself. All these factors contribute to increasing the price of a drug, but one very important factor often gets entirely overlooked: Drugs are expensive because the science of drug discovery is hard.
I stumbled upon this article today and its one of the best summaries of why drugs can be so expensive.
Unlike other industries, biotech uses knowledge that is both incomplete and sometimes straight up wrong. Imagine you’re a mechanic and a car gets dropped off. Now there’s something wrong with it but you just have a general idea of what it might be wrong with it like the engine or transmission.
Here’s the kicker, you don’t actually have the tools you need. Sure you have a hammer and a few other blunt instruments and you might be lucky and have a screw driver. Oh its gets even better, you can’t actually take the car apart. You perform tests on it and lift the hood but you can’t actually take it apart since isolated parts don’t perform the same as the whole (in vitro vs in vivo).
Once you think you might have the issue narrowed down you actually get to design the tools you’re going to use to fix it! Yay! Now you can actually start to tinker with the car. Sadly most of your new tools don’t work the first, second, or even third time around. They don’t fit, they work but on the wrong part of the car, you name it.
Finally you get to the root of the problem and you think you now have all the tools to fix the issue. You perform your duties and turn the car on…and its still broken. Now you have to start all over again.
That’s basically drug design in a nutshell.
Designing a drug is almost guess work. Sure we have a certain idea about whats going on but a lot of times we are venturing into the unknown. There are scientific kits out there tat can help us out, but a lot of times we need to develop our own assays and techniques and that takes time and a lot of money.
Now pharma companies have been criticized for spending more on marketing than research. Now if you look at the numbers, it appears to be true but there is a lot underneath those numbers. As Derek Lowe explains those numbers include a lot more than just marketing. The more correct term would be SG&A (sales, general, and administrative). SG&A includes everything from marketing to admin overheard to almost everything in between. It can basically be considering the cost of running a business. More importantly, if you look at the pharma’s SG&A and compare it to other similar industries, they match up pretty closely.
In the end, drug design is a pretty unforgiving arena.
This is so true. From first-hand experience, so much goes into the drug discovery process, especially in medicinal chemistry. The hard part is actually synthesizing the target compounds; sure, on paper, it looks fabulous.
But then you have to consider economic/atom-efficient approaches, toxicity, pharmacokinetic studies, SAR studies, which may ALL fail for a compound you’ve just begun making for a few days or weeks. Then it’s back to the drawing board, further discussion of moieties that improve the lipophilicity of your molecule, and all that jazz.