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