Drug discovery system for cancer is failing patients, says leading expert

28 October 2014

The development of new drugs and treatments for cancer has failed to keep up with advances in knowledge because the system is broken, according to Professor Paul Workman, Interim Chief Executive of The Institute of Cancer Research.

Professor Workman, presented a keynote lecture to the World Oncology Forum last week. He said that big leaps forward in cancer treatment were now possible, but only with major changes to the model for discovering and developing drugs. Concerted action is needed by the 'ecosystem' of governments, pharmaceutical companies, regulators and academic institutions to fix a system that was failing to take the risks needed to deliver exciting new treatments.

Professor Workman told the summit in Lugano, Switzerland, that drugs were only available for 5% of the 500 known cancer drug targets and that far more were needed to deliver the combination treatments that are essential to overcome the major problem of cancer evolution and drug resistance.

The World Oncology Forum brings together 50 global leaders in cancer research and treatment in order to come up with policy recommendations designed to improve treatments across the world.

Professor Workman said that the drug discovery ecosystem is far too risk averse, mostly tending to work in the same areas of research and producing ‘me too’ drugs, similar to others on the market, rather than genuinely new, innovative medicines.

He argued that, “There have been some impressive advances in the personalised treatment of cancer, but overall progress has failed to keep pace with the dramatic advances over the last 20 years in our knowledge about cancer biology and genetics. We could, and should, be doing much better.”

Professor Workman added, “We need to be looking beyond low-hanging fruit when it comes to drug discovery and to focus our efforts on more novel drug targets to produce really innovative drugs that tackle major unmet needs in cancer. I see our broken model of drug discovery and development as the biggest challenge in our efforts to get exciting and game-changing new drugs to patients. Until we fix it, we will not see the number of really innovative treatments — capable of making a big impact on the lives of patients — that we should be expecting.

“The key to driving faster progress in cancer treatment is incentivising private companies, and the academic organisations that work with them, to take the risks they need to take to discover the truly innovative treatments of the future.

“In return, pharmaceutical companies will need to accept that they are receiving help from governments, regulators and health services, and they can’t expect to set prices that squeeze every penny of possible profit from those same public institutions.”

Professor Workman has spent his career doing world-leading drug discovery and development in academic, biotech and big pharma settings. He leads a 200-strong team of scientists as Director of the Cancer Research UK Cancer Therapeutics Unit at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), which has discovered more new cancer drugs than any other academic centre in the world, and in July this year became the ICR’s Interim Chief Executive.

Drawing on successful models of academic-industry collaboration at the ICR, including the discovery and development of prostate cancer drug abiraterone, Professor Workman laid out three main ways he believes the drug discovery model can be fixed:

  • By reducing the level of risk experienced by individual companies when they take a new cancer drug into trials – through sharing the overall risk with academia and governments, and by conducting faster, streamlined, more cost-effective clinical trials in defined patient populations with particular molecular profiles.
  • By increasing the rewards for companies should they develop innovative new cancer drugs with real patient benefits – through market incentives, and by taking into account innovation when deciding whether to make new drugs available.
  • By making sure that regulations governing drug discovery and development are appropriate for the science and the patient – through reducing excessive bureaucracy in clinical trials and updating the rules to ensure more drugs are assessed in children.


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