Tom Still: Unpopular drug companies still push discovery

MADISON – John McNeish gives it a light-hearted spin when he talks about drug companies being one of the least trusted institutions in America.

“The polls say only 3 percent of the people in the country have a favorable view of drug companies,” Pfizer executive McNeish told a group of about 75 people, mostly scientists, who gathered at University Research Park last week. “That means only one or two of you like us.”

Because the audience included researchers such as stem-cell pioneer Dr. James Thomson, the 3 percent “favorable” figure for the room was undoubtedly low. Had the room included the full spectrum of citizens, however, McNeish’s popularity estimate would have been much closer to correct.

People love to hate drug companies. Politicians know that, and they rarely miss a chance to hammer the Pfizers, Mercks and Abbots of the world for running too many expensive television ads, for charging too much for their products, and for generally engaging in some sort of grand conspiracy to deprive us of the medicines we need. On a trust scale, “Big Pharma” ranks behind lawyers, elected officials – and even the press.

Not that drug companies don’t deserve their fair measure of scrutiny, but dedicated researchers such as McNeish deserve to be heard by the critics.

McNeish directs genetic technologies and other exploratory programs for Pfizer, which has been a leader in the use of mouse stem cells to speed drug discovery and testing. In fact, the company spends $10 million per year on human disease research tied to embryonic stem cell lines from a specific mouse model.

Understanding how cells work is central to discovering safer and better drugs, and stem cells offer the right genetic structures, growth patterns, physiological responses and other factors to make for successful experiments.

“Discovery works within the context of the cell, therefore better cells are essential for drug discovery,” McNeish said.

While Pfizer has worked with mouse stem cells, it has not conducted experiments involving human stem cells. While McNeish and his colleagues see tremendous potential in working with such cells, they also see many financial and public policy risks.

The costs of bringing a drug to market are enormous, not counting the ads. Pfizer may unveil a couple of new drugs per year, but screen millions of compounds in the process. It takes up to 15 years from the time of discovery to put a new drug on the shelf, and it costs $800 million to $900 million to do so. That’s a side of prescription drug costs some critics rarely mention.

McNeish believes human stem cells could enhance drug discovery by identifying safer compounds earlier, by curbing reliance on animal models, by testing effectiveness outside clinical trials, and by developing drugs that are more “personalized” to individuals. Right now, the effectiveness of a drug can vary widely depending on individual genetic make-up, or “body chemistry.”

“Stem cell technology offers the opportunity for better cells – better than what we have worked with as an industry for 30, 40, 50 years,” McNeish said.

Again, don’t expect Pfizer on any other drug company to jump into human stem cell research tomorrow. Financial, political and social pressures dictate otherwise. Meanwhile, some of the same people who champion cutting-edge research in biotechnology are making it harder for those products to ever reach market.

Drug companies make mistakes – including some multi-million dollar whoppers of late – and they should be held accountable. But they also deserve a bit of credit when they quietly and persistently push to discover drugs that can help all of society, not just the 3 percent of citizens who like them.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.