Angel of the morning

 Partnership is the new black. Lonely-hearted blogger Maxine Vaccine raises the flag for life science collaboration – as long as the goal is truly mutual and not just a one-molecule stand.

Spare a thought for the pharmaceutical industry’s logo designers. A few years ago they were creating new logos like there was no tomorrow, as each merger or acquisition led to a new company name. The redesigning of wall plaques and letterheads rivalled R&D as a running cost for the industry.

Now, all the offices have white patches on the walls where the corporate logo used to be. There’s nothing there, because a biotech company has been invited to come and work with the team – and after Easter, it will be another company sitting in the same chairs and drinking coffee from the same mugs. Another month, another molecule.

We’ve gone from the harem model – one master and many brides all under the same roof – to the rapid turnover of the speed dating model. Why merge when you can partner on a contract basis, share resources for the duration of a single project, and not argue about who does the washing-up?

Is this just commitment phobia on the part of big pharma? Are those CEOs worried that raising investment will be too difficult if there isn’t a bright new partner every time? Well, yes – but it’s not that simple. It’s about the way biologics work – which is, of course, the way life works.

The role of biotechnology in drug discovery is one of the two great principles of healthcare in the 21st century. As healthcare becomes more personalised, drugs map more closely onto the patient’s genetic and physiological make-up, and the relationship between biological processes and the drugs that protect or modify them becomes more and more that of a lock and key.

Biologics have a great history. Vaccination gained proof of concept in 1796, when Edward Jenner showed that fluid from cowpox sores could be used to inoculate people against smallpox. The first artificial vaccine (against rabies) was developed by Louis Pasteur in 1885. The first injection of an extracted human hormone, insulin, was achieved by Frederick Banting and Charles Best in 1923 – we are told that its effect on a ward of children dying from type 1 diabetes was greeted as a miracle. The first antibiotic, penicillin, was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928 – another medical miracle, until…

Until the overuse of broad-spectrum antibiotics in modern medicine led to the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, and a need for new and more closely targeted antibiotics. Recently, GSK’s Andrew Witty drew attention to the need for better industry collaboration to address this crucial danger. At the moment, he said, new antibiotics cannot command a huge market. But by the time there is a major unmet need, it may be too late. The solution lies in collaboration, so that the costs, risks and rewards are shared across a spectrum of life science industry stakeholders.

“We are trying to get ahead of the disaster,” said Witty. “Everybody has a concern that, one day, there might be a bug for which we don’t have a drug. We don’t want that day to happen, and we need to re-double our energies, and the way to do that is to acknowledge that the market has failed.”

And there’s the second great principle of healthcare in the 21st century.

Maxine’s views are not necessarily those of Pharmaceutical Field.