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How data may make better medicine

Jonathan Leff recently stood before a room full of biomedical policy and industry experts who gathered to explore obstacles for innovation in medicine during the Brookings Institution’s State of Biomedical Innovation conference.

Leff, chairman at the healthcare analysis group Deerfield Institute, clicked to a slide that illustrated a dramatic decline in overall productivity for biomedical and pharmaceutical research and development.

Starting in the mid-1950s, Leff pointed out that the number of drugs approved per $1 billion spent has consistently gone down over the course of six decades.

“We’re spending more and more, and it’s not clear that we’re getting more for it if you just look at the output of new medicines being approved each year,” said Leff.

Limited data exists to measure the cause of this stifled innovation. Sometimes, Leff said, data is not collected regularly or is incomplete. After that, he asked one simple question.

“How can we fix it if we can’t measure it?”

Deerfield Institute recently partnered with Brookings to build a database that tracks drugs that the Food and Drug Administration approved over the last 20 years in order to better understand the success and failure of drug therapy innovation. According to Leff, this has not previously existed.

Broader discussions during the conference also focused on how to make biomedical research and development processes more efficient and cost-effective, not only through better use of metrics but also more targeted clinical trials, which present huge costs in preparing a drug for approval. All of these ideas would help to pave the way for more innovation.

Considering how much people rely on drug therapies and medical devices, biomedical innovation is an area that bears “tremendous impact on the lives of Americans and people all around the world,” said Mark B. McClellan, director of Health Care Innovation and Value Initiative at Brookings.

“The potential for longer and better lives in the future is great, but the process of translating good ideas from basic science into safe and effective treatments that can improve people’s lives can be long, difficult and uncertain.”

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