Insight - Innovation Requires Creative Solutions

March 10, 2016

On March 10th, 2016, Dr. George Scangos, then CEO of Biogen became Chairman of the Board of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). Following are excerpts from Dr. Scangos’ remarks given at the PhRMA 2016 Annual Meeting:

When I began my academic research career in the 1970s, the biotech industry was in its infancy. Our understanding of the biology of most diseases was limited; molecular biology was just emerging; and the word genomics was more likely to connote a new exercise routine than a scientific revolution. Therapeutic antibodies were not even an idea yet.  Monoclonal antibodies had not yet been described.  

In the 1960s, the 5-year survival rate for the most common form of childhood cancer – acute lymphoblastic leukemia – was less than 10 percent. Today it is over 90 percent. When I started my career, many diseases that are reasonably well controlled today, including multiple sclerosis had no treatments at all. Hepatitis C had not even been identified – it was known as non-A non-B hepatitis. Today it is curable. Most patients with heart disease are now treated effectively. HIV/AIDS is now a chronic disease. 

And the best is yet to come. The rate of scientific and technical advancement is truly stunning. Our understanding of disease biology is increasing dramatically. Our ability to collect and rapidly analyze large and complex data sets is amazing. Failure rates in drug development are decreasing. We all are involved in tackling diseases that, only a few years ago, were black boxes and unapproachable. 

And the advances we have seen over the last 30 years are nothing compared to what we will see over the next 30 years – as long as we have an environment that continues to encourage innovation. If that is the case, our children will live in a world where they no longer have to fear many of the diseases that currently afflict us. They could see a world where cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, among others, are diagnosed early and treated effectively and are not the scourge that they are today.

Over the past decade, our industry has invested billions of dollars in Alzheimer’s trials – more than 120 prospective treatments that did not impact the disease.  Although these trials did not produce a drug, they did provide tremendous insights into the disease and helped shape the next round of clinical trial design.  These “failures” are part of a learning process that ultimately will lead to effective treatments and cures.

We hear criticism that there is too much risk – and get questions about why we would tackle a disease where there has been so much failure. The easy answer is because that is what we do. That is why we are here. 

The more sophisticated answer is that those questions are backward looking. The issue is not to avoid areas where drugs have failed: that is where the biggest need lies. It is to learn from past failures, to move forward in thoughtful ways based on solid science and medicine, to bring important new drugs to patients who need them. 

As I look at the Alzheimer’s projects being carried out around the industry, I see thoughtful programs, well-founded in biology, that have reasonable chances of working. Certainly there is risk – a lot of it – but the need is great, the biology is solid and these are risks that in my view are worth taking.

But industry working alone to solve these complex scientific puzzles is not enough. Our ability to transform scientific advances into meaningful treatments for patients is one piece of a complex ecosystem of health-care delivery, payment, and public policy that makes it possible to devote huge sums of financial and human resources, over long periods of time, to fight daunting medical problems. 

Without the billions of dollars in R&D that the biopharmaceutical industry spends every year, very few new medicines would reach patients. Without the willingness to take the risks that we do, very few new medicines would reach patients. Without the ability to take on projects that can last a decade or more before we even know if they are successful, very few new medicines would reach patients.

We stand on the cusp of an amazing era of new medicines, better health, and more affordable healthcare that will be enabled by those medicines.  However, our ability to fulfill that promise is possible only in an environment that makes investing in biomedical research attractive – and the transformation of discovery from bench to bedside possible.

And the success of that ecosystem requires a supportive public policy environment, one that protects intellectual property, provides regulatory certainty, and maintains incentives for innovation. 

I am well aware that our industry is currently under a great deal of scrutiny. And I recognize that patients are facing real challenges affording their medicines when they reach the pharmacy counter. 

Our industry must be a contributor to policy solutions that address the entire system of health care costs and the challenges faced by patients in accessing the care they need. And it is incumbent upon us to ensure that those solutions recognize that perhaps the greatest hope in reducing future health care costs lies with this industry – and our ability to tackle diseases that will otherwise swamp our healthcare system. Ultimately, I believe drugs that effectively treat disease, properly used, are really the only way to bend the cost curve. 

Groundbreaking innovations require creative policy solutions. 

The groundbreaking science is here. 


George Scangos, former Chief Executive Officer

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