Contract research organizations, or CROs, have a natural tendency to bridge gaps in the landscape of pharmaceutical R&D. As laboratories for hire, CROs have emerged as vital agents in screening compounds, developing synthetic routes, and supporting clinical trials. They provide expertise and infrastructure to virtual drug companies, small biotech firms, and even big pharmaceutical makers that lack necessary resources. Increasingly, though, the research conducted by CROs is being funded by nonprofit foundations and government agencies. The trend reflects a tectonic shift in how drugs are discovered in the pharmaceutical industry. For Western CROs, which are benefiting most from the trend, the new business is helping to offset contracts lost to competitors based in India and China.
Traditional funders of drug discovery are retrenching, explains Walter H. Moos, vice president of the Biosciences Division of SRI International, a nonprofit research institute and CRO. Venture capital for early-stage drug discovery has been declining since the recession. Major drug companies have become increasingly risk averse, committing to acquire compounds only in later stages of development. And the traditional commercial support for projects crossing the so-called valley of death—the early stretch of the long drug development process—has all but evaporated.
“But nature abhors a vacuum,” Moos says. Nontraditional support is rushing into the space, and governments are doing more of the research that was traditionally the domain of commercial entities. [snip]
...The agency’s [NIH's] Blueprint for Neuroscience Research, encompassing 16 NIH institutes and research centers, is using a similar virtual pharma approach. Several CROs have been awarded contracts to support research. In addition to AMRI, SRI International and Southern Research Institute have been hired to perform drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics screening and other services. “We have solicited applications from small business and academic researchers around the country,” Farkas says. “Successful applicants will be plugged into the network.”
The agency’s support of early-stage drug development, Farkas says, may reflect a permanent realignment in the field of drug discovery and development as big pharma embraces a streamlined business model. Shifts in the industry, she says, will affect where NIH targets support along the drug discovery and development continuum.I can't imagine how this is going to end well for US-based medicinal chemists. Governments and non-profits will be not able to sustain US medchem CROs. NIH cannot possibly keep up the level of support over time; budget pressures will become too great over the coming years and something else will become more pressing.
I lament that it seems that medicinal chemistry has gone from a proud area of research in the late 1990's* to something of a boutique industry, supported by charities and benevolent governments.
Best wishes to all of us.
*If I had to choose one reason I became an organic chemist, it was the story of the Merck HIV protease inhibitors. Considering that, when I was a teenager, I was practically assured that 1 in 3 people I knew would become HIV-positive, the transformation of HIV to a chronic condition seemed amazing and almost entirely due to medicinal chemists.