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President’s Lecture 2019 ‘Big Pharma – why even the best science might not be enough to save it’

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Published: 14 Aug 2019
Category: Meetings update

The 2019 President’s Lecture took place at the Royal College of Physicians in central London and was delivered by Dr Nessa Carey, Visiting Professor at Imperial College London, Transitional Chair for Business Development and Innovation at the Quadram Institute and non-executive director at UCL-Business. 
 
Formerly a Senior Lecturer in Molecular Biology at Imperial College London, Dr Carey worked for just under 15 years in the biotech and pharma sectors, in a variety of senior scientific and partnering roles. She is a specialist in translational drug discovery and has served on several UKRI panels and committees.  

The talk entitled ‘Big Pharma – why even the best science might not be enough to save it’ generated lively discussion at the event and on social media about the future of pharma in a changing world. Dr Carey’s message was that our approach to developing new medicines needs an update - from reviewing the reimbursement model to ensuring that regulatory pathways are appropriate for new therapeutic modalities. Dr Carey asked the audience to question the things we take for granted (like the length of patents) and to think creatively about the new business models we need to support innovation. 

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Dr Carey has written three popular science books, all on cutting edge research. Her latest blockbuster, Hacking the Code of Life - How Gene Editing Will Rewrite Our Futures, was released in June.  

Next year our President Elect, Professor Sir Munir Pirmohamed will host his first President’s Lecture on 23 June.  Details of his selected speaker will be announced later this year, please do keep the date available in your diary.   

Below we hear from Nessa about the experience:

I was both thrilled and more than a tad terrified when the Society President, Professor Stephen Hill, asked me to deliver the 2019 President’s Lecture. It wasn’t the idea of speaking in front of an audience that worried me. I do this a lot, although it’s usually to students – sixth form, undergraduate or PhD – or the general public. It wasn’t even that this was to professionals, as I still engage with this group on a regular basis. But in all those situations I am usually talking about various intriguing and weird angles of genetics. No, the worrying aspect was the title Steve and I agreed for the evening – “Big pharma – why even the best science may not be enough to save it”. 

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I’ve only talked about this topic once before, at the ELRIG conference in 2017. It’s probably fair to say that a room full of people who are working incredibly hard at the lab bench may not be the most receptive audience for a talk whose underlying theme is that the science is the easy bit when it comes to the pharma industry. But I dusted off the research, updated the findings and decided that my basic premise still held. It’s not that developments in science won’t have any positive impact on the creation of new drugs. CRISPR-based gene editing will allow us to interrogate biological processes and pathologies far more quickly and cheaply than in the past. Big data analytics will support the identification of patient sub-types who will respond to particular therapeutics approaches, and thereby drive down the size and cost of clinical trials. But the greatest problems facing the pharma industry are business ones, particularly in the domain of reimbursement. Novartis’ new gene therapy for spinal muscular atrophy will cost $2.1 million per patient but it’s not clear that either centralised state health care systems will pay this, or if it will be accessed via insurance models. Just a few months ago, a biotech company succeeded in getting its new antibiotic approved by the US FDA. That company is now in administration. 

I believe that the pharmaceutical industry has created enormous benefit for humanity, and that we all need to cooperate to find ways of supporting it into a sustainable future. This will require a global change in business norms and a major re-engagement with the public, countering many of the myths that have developed around this sector. Despite my trepidation when I first received the invitation to present this lecture, I had a wonderful time delivering it because the range, quality and imagination of the views presented by the audience in the question and answer session were so inspiring and thought-provoking. I just hope the audience got as much out of the evening as I did. 

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Published: 14 Aug 2019
Category: Meetings update

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