Friday, April 7, 2017

Celebrating failure, in a good way

Via friend of the blog James Ashenhurst, a very nice Wall Street Journal story by Jonathan D. Rockoff on how pharmaceutical companies express their appreciation of scientists, even as drug candidates don't quite make it all the way to approval: 
...Ironwood began holding “drug wakes” to ease the minds of employees who were upset when the company’s research for its first drug program failed, R&D chief Mark Currie said. The company wanted to dispel concerns that staff would lose their jobs*, while helping them to move on to the next project. The most recent event, held last year for a drug for diabetic gastroparesis (a stomach condition), was Ironwood’s sixth drug wake. 
The company had been working on the drug for more than a decade. As they entered the party on Aug. 9, employees walked past a cooler of beer bottles and a poster memorializing the failed compound. On a podium inside, cupcakes were frosted with letters spelling out the amino-acid sequence that made up the drug. Speakers recalled the patients who had shared their stories of living with the painful condition, while toasting the molecule’s “intestinal fortitude.” 
“I will carry it with me forever,” said Carolyn Higgins, the project’s manager. The molecule, Ms. Higgins said, enjoyed the kind of life that any peptide could “hope for.”
I really think this could contribute to a good atmosphere at a company; it's nice when higher-ups can acknowledge good work, even when things don't quite work out. (I presume that the parties when drugs actually are approved are a lot bigger.)

*It seems worth noting that Ironwood has indeed had layoffs in the past; it's not clear to me how coupled or uncoupled those layoffs have been to drug failures. 

2 comments:

  1. I always liked it when companies set goals that were based off of progressing OR killing projects. Not every project will succeed and the sensible companies won't incentivise people to keep projects alive longer that they ought to. I'd never heard of wakes though, that sounds like a great, novel idea.

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  2. Even though it is in the very nature of drug R&D to encounter failure it can be difficult after spending years of physical and mental devotion to progressing a candidate. I have been to a few such "end of project celebrations" when a compound/program dies but too often seemed hollow because there was little effort on real diagnosis behind and lesson learned from the failures. Typically afterwards the people and company went through months of disruption as moved to new projects breaking up effective teams for immature unfocused ones, and usually there were staff reductions by either direct layoffs (in spite of initial assurances to the contrary) or attrition because negative and uncertain environment. The best situations involved back up compounds or different programs that had been under resourced meaning a quick transition to new efforts but because funding issues it seems hard these days for most biotechs to be more than a one-trick pony.

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