Biotech “Walks With Light,” But If We Don’t Start Explaining it Better, We’re “Cuckoo”

12/22/08

For the last 17 years my office at Targeted Genetics looked out closely onto a pretty major intersection, busy with cars and pedestrians going to and from downtown Seattle. For years the pedestrian crossing signs stated “Walk with Light.” Maybe I’m a romantic fool, but I always thought of that phrase, “walk with light,” as a wonderful metaphor for how we should feel as biotechnologists, as we pursue our mission of developing new treatments for incurable diseases, new ways to feed the hungry, new ways to reduce oil dependency, and all the other noble efforts underway. Walk with light. Biotechnology is hard, risky, and full of challenges, setbacks, disappointments. But even if you prove that something doesn’t work, you’ve helped pave the way to understanding what does work. What a great enterprise! Of all businesses, the opportunity to definitely “do good” and maybe “do well” is tremendously compelling.

About a year ago, the “Walk with Light” signs disappeared. Instead, the street Powers That Be added a new feature to assist the blind (when I mentioned this to my sardonic younger brother from North Carolina, he replied “In North Carolina we don’t let the blind drive…”) Anyway, to assist the blind PEDESTRIANS, every 60 seconds from my office for the last year I’ve listened to a loud chiming “CUCKOO, CUCKOO, CUCKOO”…It’s impossible to ignore, and impossible not to relate to the toil and turmoil we’ve been experiencing in biotechnology lately. Lack of capital, an uncertain regulatory climate, the general economic downturn, a backlash against drug developers – as Pogo said, we are certainly surrounded by insurmountable opportunities.

So which is it, are we “walking with light” in pursuing our mission, or are we “cuckoo”?

Maybe a bit of both. It takes a certain type of person to deal with the risk inherent in our business, and to overcome the constant setbacks and maintain perspective. It’s not a profession for everyone.

Having said that, those of us who lean more to the “walk with light” side than the “cuckoo” side are more often than not blinded to the notion that anyone could possibly see our mission as less than honorable. We arrogantly assume that, just because we believe in the goodness of the mission, that everyone else should as well. And herein lies one of our major problems.

Biotech is a great mission, but it is also a business, and has to be so due to the incredible amounts of capital required to move science ahead. Society appreciates the concept of new drug development until the drug is actually on the market, and someone has to pay for it. And the price of the drug has to capture the investment that went into it, the cost of earlier failures getting to success, the cost of delivering it, and a return to those investors who put the money up in the first place. And this is where, after all the work and risk to get the drug to market, we really screw up.

We’ve done an incredibly poor job at explaining to the world what we do, how it is done, what the challenges are, and what the impact is. It’s easy to feel that our job is to do the research, and let the perception of what we do just take care of itself, but that’s a big mistake.

If we are going to survive as a sector and continue to move ahead, important efforts need to be made. First, we need to work harder to capture the hard data surrounding the value of our innovations, a very different concept than collecting data to set the simple price of a drug. The definition of cost effectiveness needs to take into account all the costs and all the benefits, including quality of life measurements, keeping our patients in the workforce and contributing to society, and keeping their families together. It’s difficult, but it can be done, as the data is available and transparent.

Second, we need to enlist as advocates the perfect soldiers – the patients who are receiving our drugs and are benefitting from them, and our workers who are toiling in the field and know the challenges better than anyone. No one conveys the benefit of biotechnology better than patients, but someone working in the field also has a great role in explaining the rigors of our processes, how hard we work, and how important the work is.

It’s clear that healthcare reform overall is coming, is welcome and is necessary. In order to ensure that the proper context for biotechnology is taken into consideration in these efforts, we’d better be vocal, persistent, and active in telling the story, and enlist others to help us tell the story. It’s a good story to tell.

Stewart Parker is the CEO of the Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle. Follow @

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  • Bob Splien

    An excellent article, and I agree the industry needs to do more outreach.

    The problem is that when you look at how established drug companies perform their practices, they spend more money on maintaining their patents, and making new variations on an old drug that works “better” (so that when the patent runs out they can continue to monopolize the market), that the “new” work gets lost in the noise.

    Sure, it’s a business. Does it have to be quite so oily of one?

    Patents give you mny years of protection. After that, you should have gotten a new discovery that will give you another 14 years. You shouldn’t be spending most of your money trying to hold on to niche markets. Nor should you be spending all your money only on drugs that are “aximum profit protential”.

    Why aren’t big pharma doing any real research on cheap cures and treatments for common ailments? Why, for example, does no-one seem to know that ethyelne glycol, applied topically, rids you of foot fungus? (That’s antifreeze, by the way, available for pennies compared to antifungal remedies which don’t work as well)

    Yes, It’s a business. But it doesn’t have to be one that sacrifices health for profit.

  • Bob

    Nice article, would love to know how you feel about TGEN being at 20 cents..

  • srini n

    Yes, the story needs to be told widely so that even a layman understands in the drug discovery>development>trial>distribution activity chain.

    The cost of research is huge; so is the failure rate too making it uneconomical to price new drugs within the reach of common man unless governments subsidize.

    What bothers me is why MNCs do not come together in conducting these research in a collaborative manner and share the profits of successful drugs through a royalty? Sounds naive? If profit only is the motive, it is! But if it is the opportunity to add health and wellness to humanity that drives the effort, as the author suggests, then this may not sound as naive…