Tales from the Golden Age of Drug Development

March 12, 2009
Kerri Nelen

Applied Clinical Trials

Notes from IIR's Clinical Trials Congress 2009 held this past February in Philadelphia.

Roy Vagelos, retired chief executive officer and chairman of Merck, took audience members through his illustrious and exciting career at the pharma giant. His objective was to shed light on lessons industry can learn from the golden age of pharma-and in doing so, made one lament the fact they hadn’t the chance to be a research scientist in the early 1980s.    

What an interesting time. Hope for the next cure seemed as high as motivation. So, what can we learn from those glory days of R&D? A few things.

Veteran's insight           
For starters, breakthroughs mustn't be considered the only path to success. Plus, "no breakthrough is ever perfect," says Vagelos. Which leaves room for other success routes. In Merck's case, it was a second-generation antihypertensive drug that had real advantages over the first generation-the biggest advantage being no loss of taste, thus no black box.

Vagelos also touched upon the impact of company culture. He learned of its power firsthand after a drug the company had developed to kill deadly worms in horses and dogs had been successfully tested in treating river blindness in sub Sahara Africa. After a few major setbacks, including no financial backers, the "magical drug" (as the New York Times dubbed it), received approval and Merck decided that it would provide the drug itself.

"[That] had a terrific effect on people at Merck. We lived what we said; we were there to make important drugs," said Vagelos. "That set a culture for the company, which is one of the reasons the company had such success."

Another reason is expertise. For Merck, in-house expertise led to the first recombinant vaccine in the world. And outside expertise led to the company's first bisphosphonate. But if not for the expert eye of one Merck employee, who noted the work being done by a small company in Italy, that compound never would have been brought in, said Vagelos.

"No matter how much you outsource," he warned, "you better have somebody with great expertise."

The future is now
As for what we can expect moving forward, it was no big surprise to hear Vagelos predict big pharma will take a back seat to small pharma when it comes to discovery. They're the ones working hard to attract bright, young professionals, as the bigger folks slim down their R&D workforce.

The result, according to Vagelos: "Many companies will outsource more and more of their discovery because there's more going on outside."

Inside industry, meanwhile, he described a great revolution taking place, where the science is making strides with the help of genomics and proteomics. In the eyes of Vagelos, the post golden age of pharma isn't tarnished, it's alive and well, and will continue to thrive. "People will live better because of what is accomplished in this great industry," he said.-

Kerri Nelen