What Does Biotech Really Suffer From? Information Overload, or Underload?
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at hand. Whichever viewpoint one adopts, my concern these days is that many scientists, especially those who work for small biotechs, have no real choice. They simply can’t afford access to a wide range of journals. This won’t necessarily impede their day-to-day work, but I worry that they will miss out on some critical articles containing highly important data. This informational void could eventually manifest itself as a manufacturing issue, side effect, analytic problem, efficacy issue, or in any number of ways. Over time, that may spell doom for the drugs that they are working to develop, or at least slow down their progress.
Big library budgets, of course, do not directly translate into research productivity, as evidenced by the declining number of novel drugs developed by Big Pharma in recent years. Other factors are likely responsible for this productivity decline. However, recent industry trends have seen Big Pharma turn to smaller biotech companies at an increasingly rapid pace to fill their diminished pipelines. Morgan Stanley even suggested last year that Big Pharma should abandon their own internal research programs and simply fill their pipelines by purchasing drugs being developed by these smaller biotech companies. In essence, the burden of biological drug discovery is being pushed down from large companies with enormous research budgets to small startups with just a few coins to rub together. These fledgling company scientists are expected to come up with new, cutting edge innovative discoveries. Compared to Big Pharma, their track record in recent years is actually pretty competitive, especially on a cost basis. My concern, however, is that this lack of access to the scientific literature across the entire biotech industry will handicap their efforts to varying degrees. This may have contributed, in part, to the numerous clinical failures of drugs purchased by Big Pharma from these small companies in recent years.
Innovative startup companies in many fields will always be financially constrained compared to their well-established brethren with whom they hope to compete. However, not all of these disciplines (e.g. software) are as dependent on library access as are biotech companies. I’m not sure what can be done to give biotech scientists greater access to a wider range of journals. Perhaps some type of co-op or consortiums could be set up to facilitate such access among groups of companies? I also have serious doubts that the potentially damaging effects of information underload can be easily measured. However, not being able to readily quantitate a problem doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. The information underload issue is certainly worth pondering, given that the overall number of new drugs approved by the FDA in 2010 was the lowest in several years, and the overall success rate in clinical trials is measured in the single digits for a wide variety of diseases.