A new paradigm for drug discovery: part three – online shopping for scientists: new tools for finding and engaging service vendors

In part three of our four part series on the changing face of Life Science research, Dr Kevin Lustig and Dr Maria Thompson discuss how outsourcing is key to reducing cost, and delivering more high quality compounds to the clinic in less time.

(Continued from “A new paradigm for drug discovery: part two – tapping into online sources of funding to support your research project”)

It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this that the pharmaceutical industry is currently suffering from quite a few problems. Over the last decade the number of new products hitting the market has dwindled, industry profits are down, and over 300,000 research jobs have been lost. Furthermore, between 2012–2016 the industry is facing a “patent cliff” with over 100 important products dropping off patent including 13 blockbuster drugs.

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A simple solution

The solution is a deceptively simple idea, but complex to execute. If the industry can only start to deliver a steady stream of high quality compounds into the clinic, all of our other problems would fade away.

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“If the industry can only start to deliver a steady stream of high quality compounds into the clinic, all of our other problems would fade away.”

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But how to achieve that goal?

Many industry thought-leaders including luminaries such as Bernard Munos contend that one critical step is for the pharmaceutical industry to outsource more of its work to small nimble research organizations1. Replacing the high fixed cost of maintaining huge internal R&amp,D capabilities with the lower variable cost of bringing in outside help when it’s needed on a project. Many pharmaceutical companies (including some of the very biggest) are already experimenting with this model, creating their own virtual drug discovery groups with a lean internal staff, and relying on outsourced service providers to do the bulk of the heavy lifting.

Bottlenecks

The chief bottleneck to this new paradigm is a logistical one, which can be broken into two parts:

Problem 1. Finding what you need quickly

Just try searching Google for ‘light scattering’ (a technique used to characterize the size and shape of particles suspended in solution) and you’ll get pages of results, in fields from biology, to photography, physics and everything in between. Glaringly absent from the results are any contract research organizations (CROs) providing light scattering as a service. Clearly traditional search engines are not the right tool for our needs. What we require is something more focused. A search engine that is ONLY looking at a database of research service providers and can quickly return a list of suitable candidates for you to choose from.

Problem 2. Managing complexity

To maximize the gains from outsourcing you need to find the best service provider for each individual service you require. The best provider of dynamic light scattering, might be different from the best provider of PK studies. Your quality goes up, cost comes down, and speed increases if you can parse these activities out to different providers rather than bundling them with just one. This however flies in the face of the current practice in outsourcing where a pharmaceutical company typically contracts with a single large CRO to handle the lion’s share of its work. The upside here is that you only have to manage one relationship, which is easy. The downside is that you sacrifice quality, cost and flexibility, individual scientists inside the pharmaceutical company are forced to use that one supplier even if they know they could do better elsewhere.

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“While the single supplier model still dominates the industry there is a growing trend towards smaller service providers.”

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While the single supplier model still dominates the industry there is a growing trend towards smaller service providers. In fact, a steady erosion of the single provider model is inevitable if the pharmaceutical industry is to solve its problems and return itself to profitability.

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A novel solution

In our four step illustration above, part III (Find experts and shop online for research services) is the most recent piece of the puzzle to fall into place. Five years ago the solution (still widely used across the industry today) was to use SharePoint, Excel, and email to manage your external contracts and Google to find them. Only in the last few years have ‘Research Exchanges’ or “Online Marketplaces” started to appear.

A scientific research exchange can be thought of as a combination of Google and Amazon for a specific life science area such as “drug discovery”. If you tried the example above and search for ‘light scattering’ on a Research Exchange, you’ll get a list of service providers that can do that service for you. In just a few clicks of the mouse, you can have a list of suitable vendors, send some or all of them requests for more information, refine your requirements and get prices. Once you select a vendor and make a purchase you can track progress and communicate back and forth. If you have multiple projects with different vendors you can view them all in one simple dashboard. The research exchange neatly solves both of the logistical issues in one fell swoop.

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“A scientific research exchange can be thought of as a combination of Google and Amazon for a specific life science area such as “drug discovery”.”

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Using these platforms a researcher can take a compound from idea all the way through to the clinic, outsourcing every step in the process. It is for the first time possible to conduct drug development from your laptop without ever setting foot in a lab. Cast your mind back to part 1 in this series and Dr. Purvesh Khatri, an innovative Stanford researcher who was able to develop new diagnostic tests for cancer in an entirely virtual fashion by mining online sources of scientific data and then outsourcing the wet lab work (you can read part 1 here).

But can something as simple as a Research Exchange really disrupt the pharmaceutical industry? There will certainly be those who doubt it, but the fact that to our knowledge at least four of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies in the world have embedded a private Research Exchange’s behind their firewall, speaks volumes. The fact that these giants in our industry are making their private Research Exchanges available to researchers across their organization highlights that they value outsourcing. It also shows that they understand there is a need for change if they are ever going to return to being the powerhouses of innovation they once were. Remember also that Amazon and the other online retailers exploded and transformed the retail industry with a remarkably similar concept.

Democratizing science

Fortunately you don’t have to work in a major pharmaceutical company to enjoy these benefits. Several research exchanges are available to the public online. Some require registration fees, or take a certain percentage as a transaction fees. However in the true spirit of open science, a research exchange should be 100% free to anyone who wants to use it. Free access levels the playing field and makes the most powerful tools of modern drug development available to everyone, not just those with the deepest pockets!

References:

1.&nbsp,&nbsp,&nbsp, Rallying Pharma’a Rebels. Forbes Magazine dated August 22, 2011

The next article can be found here.

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About the authors:

Kevin Lustig is co-founder and CEO of Assay Depot, the world’s largest online marketplace for scientific services. In 2001, he founded Kalypsys, a drug discovery company that raised over $170 million in venture capital. Prior to this, he directed lead discovery at Tularik, a biopharmaceutical company purchased by Amgen in 2004 for $2.5 billion. Kevin has over 30 years of research experience including a postdoc at Harvard Medical School and a PhD degree in biochemistry from UCSF. His research discoveries have been published in Science and Nature magazines and he has been awarded eight technology patents. Dr Lustig can be contacted at klustig@assaydepot.com and more information about Assay Depot can be found at http://www.assaydepot.com/

Dr Maria Thompson is a molecular biologist with over 16 years of experience in research and development for pharmaceuticals and diagnostics. Over this period she has held a variety of leadership positions including Head of Genome Wide Screening for Type 2 diabetes, Six Sigma Black Belt, and VP of Scientific Affairs. Dr Thompson is currently Principal Consultant at APEX think, a niche consulting company providing scientific and technical advisory services to clients across the life science industry. Dr Thompson holds a BSc in Genetics and a PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry from the Royal London School of Medicine, UK. She can be contacted at: consulting.mt@gmail.com or http://www.apexthink.com/

Can online tools help your drug discovery?