Interview with Harriet Washington (Part II): The Many Tentacles of Corporate Funding

Click here to read the introduction to this four-part interview or click here to read Part I.

Pulling the Plug on Unprofitable Research

Can you give another example?

Consider the case of Dr. Chris Parish in Australia, who was working on a very promising liver-cancer drug, PI-88, that was about to go into the final stage of trials. It had performed well in trials and looked as if it would be very effective. Liver cancer is a major killer worldwide. It’s the third largest cause of cancer deaths around the globe and we don’t have many drugs for it. And yet, Progen Pharmaceuticals Limited, the company sponsoring the drug’s development and testing, voiced concerns about factors “that impacted the commercial return” of PI-88, including the successful joint launch of Nexavar, a competing drug, by the Bayer and Onyx pharmaceutical companies. The company decided that it was not going to make them enough money to become its next billion-dollar blockbuster, so they pulled the plug.

What does this mean? This means that the drug will not be tested and therefore will not be approved and be put on the market. It also means that Chris Parish, who has devised the drug, has lost control of it. He can’t simply go to a different corporation and ask them to fund the research. He doesn’t hold the patent; the corporation does. So the corporation can decide to try again with a different trial, perhaps for a different application. Or the corporation can say, ‘We’re going to cut our losses and we’re not going to sponsor work on this drug anymore.” That means that nobody else can work on the drug. The drug is abandoned..