By Randall Osborne
NEW YORK — The problem of how to make the findings of genomics pay off while maintaining a bottom line that pleases investors may find its solution in more corporate consolidation and partnerships — but only if company leaders can change their ways of thinking, said members of a panel at the 12th International Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) conference.
Titled "Moving the Bottleneck: Drug Discovery After the Genomics Revolution," the panel was led by Juergen Drews, former president of international research and development for F. Hoffmann-La Roche AG, of Basel, Switzerland, who opened by profiling the bottleneck.
About 1,000 genes are related to "multifactorial diseases that really matter," such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis, Drews said.
"Each of these genes communicates with maybe three to 10 other proteins that could be drug targets," he added. "We arrive at a number of 3,000 to 10,000 [potential targets]. This is a rough estimate, admittedly, but it's not an unreasonable one."
The challenge is to interpret each target in the context of an organism, Drews said — and this will only work if companies spend more on research and development, or collaborate on developing genomics data.
"If the right biotech companies could get together and form alliances or consortia, they could come up with more than technologies," he said. "They could come up with compounds that are even more than leads."
Panel member Wolfgang Stoiber, a physician formerly with F. Hoffmann-La Roche and now a partner in Medical Portfolio Management Capital Advisors LLC, in Boston, noted "a trend emerging in some pharmaceutical companies to buy projects at varying stages of completion, and that's driven by this hunger for innovation."
Although he predicted a continued market for leads, Stoiber said he was "not sure" about the willingness of companies to alter their ways of doing business in a more serious way.
"The information technology business has shown us what can be accomplished," Stoiber allowed. What's more, the methods of drug discovery have picked up speed and added sophistication.
"We've seen drug discovery as a low-throughput, largely manual, somewhat artistic process in the past," he said. "A limited number of targets were used to develop drugs against, and we have a trickle that fed the discovery pipeline." Company leaders often felt satisfied to put one new compound on the market every year.
"Today, it's no longer good enough," Stoiber said.
Still, he said, most pharmaceutical companies are "faced with the key challenge of changing the minds of their research groups."
Some are coming around, he added. He pointed to the merger of St. Louis-based Monsanto Inc. with American Home Products Inc., of Madison, N.J.; the proposed merger of SmithKline Beecham plc and Glaxo Wellcome plc, both of London; and the decision by Novartis AG, of Basel, Switzerland, to establish a genomics center in La Jolla, Calif. (See BioWorld Today, June 2, 1998, p. 1; Feb. 25, 1998, p. 1; and April 9, 1998, p. 1.)
"It's quite obvious we see a dramatic shift between the partition of work and power, between academia and the industry," Stoiber said. "Traditionally, target identification was within the realm of academia," with pharmaceutical companies picking up development.
"This is about to change [even more]," Stoiber said, and integrating the functions must go on.
"We've seen some attempts, and I think Incyte [Pharmaceuticals Inc., of Palo Alto, Calif.] has been tremendously successful in establishing itself as a data standard," Stoiber said. "The question is, 'Can we project or build the standards beyond the sequencing arena?'"
Drews said an approach such as that of Evotec BioSystems GmbH could help provide the breadth of research to devise drugs more quickly. The system focuses on families of targets, rather than individual ones. Evotec signed a collaboration with SmithKline last year for screening. (See BioWorld Today, Feb. 28, 1997, p. 1.)
"If you concentrate on families of targets," said Drews, "you could come up with libraries of potential medicines, potential compounds. You could have a whole catalogue of compounds that could at least be channeled into the right development arenas, once the need arises."
Karsten Henco, CEO of Hamburg, Germany-based Evotec, explained his company's high-throughput screening system.
"We developed and put a lot of effort into a nano-storage system, which allows us to store compounds in replica for a long time," he said. "We go into our assay machine, and run the assays on a 'nano' scale."
The BIO conference continues through Thursday. *