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Ten big drug companies unite to study major diseases

February 8, 2014 at 5:05 PM EDT
Ten big pharmaceutical companies are uniting with the National Institutes of Health in a five-year cooperative program to study major diseases.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Earlier this week, 10 big drug companies that rarely share their secrets agreed to work together with the National Institutes of Health. Their goal: finding cures for a number of major diseases including diabetes and Alzheimer’s. The project will last five years, cost $230 million and at the end, all the findings will be free for anyone to use.

Here to help us understand it all is Monica Langley from The Wall Street Journal. So has anything ever been tried on this scale before? I mean these are arch rivals?

MONICA LANGLEY:  Nothing has been tried on this scale, with this many diseases and with this amount of collaboration. And the biggest revelation of all is that they are going to put all their discoveries out to the public so that the biggest pharmaceutical companies or the littlest startup will have access to any discovery. It can go compete to try to find a cure for any of these diseases.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s almost following a playbook from the technology industry – the open source model.

MONICA LANGLEY: That’s exactly what this is and that’s what’s unusual. There have started to be a few more collaborations in the last few years, but nothing of this scale. And actually it took two years to get it done. There were a lot of sharp elbows and a lot of hurt feelings along the way and not all the drug companies that participated signed up. But ten big ones did and they hope to come up with some blockbuster drugs.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So what are the specific diseases and how did they narrow down the list of what to tackle?

MONICA LANGLEY: That’s a good question. At first the head of the N.I.H. is Francis Collins and he’s the one who sequenced – led the human genome experiment – and he wanted to map all diseases. That was his grand idea.  And the drug companies were like ‘Are you crazy? We can’t think of some big experiment like that. We want something that will go into our pipeline and help us make money. So they looked at what diseases they thought were within the realm of possibility or else were what patients really wanted.  And they came up with Alzheimer’s with the aging population; diabetes with the population getting fatter. And they also came up with two autoimmune diseases – rheumatoid arthritis and lupus  — for this initial five-year project.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So let’s talk about this $26 million . Put that in perspective of how much these companies would spend if they weren’t part of this trial?

MONICA LANGLEY: This is peanuts to be honest with you for the pharmaceutical companies because they spend over $200-something billion a year worldwide. But what they are doing here is something money can’t buy.  They have agreed to give their best scientists, a lot of their tissue and blood samples and all their data from the past and current clinical trials for these for diseases  within the research plan outlined. By putting this together they think they can map diseases that they have been unable to do alone. Even the N.I.H. can’t do this alone.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So how much of this is just a commercial reality out there on funding drying up for research and development?

MONICA LANGLEY:  That’s true, there’s a scientific and a business component to this, Hari.  The science component is that there’s so much scientific information now that they don’t know which molecular pathways to follow to find the targets. The second is the business reason.  The pharmaceutical executives told me that it takes them 10 years and a billion dollars to get one drug from discovery to market.  And their pipelines are drying up. Generics are coming out and so they need help finding the right drugs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Monica Langley from the Wall Street Journal thanks so much.

MONICA LANGLEY: My pleasure.