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Too many cooks at the cancer pot?

This may sound almost heretical from a guy who writes about pharma and biotech business deals and research for a living, but have we perhaps gotten to the point where there are too many organizations in the oncology arena, whether trying to market a product or find a breakthrough around which to build a product?

It’s almost physically uncomfortable for me to voice such a theory, given how pervasive cancer is as a worldwide threat to human life. After all, with such a huge killer of people, wouldn’t you want as many people as possible looking for as many ways as possible to thwart tumors from stealing away precious years and robbing people of quality of life even when they don’t actually lose their lives?

And yet I find myself thinking of the “green” and “organic” movements, and wonder if they are precursors to where oncology is going.

Think about it. The green movement was supposed to be about wise use of resources and a shift toward energy efficiency, reduction of waste, more recycling and the like. But now it seems like many companies want to label themselves as “green” because they use recycled paper coffee cups in the cafeteria or because they encourage carpooling (even though they’re emitting who-knows-what into the air from the business itself). It’s become a gimmick or label, instead of being a worthwhile goal in and of itself.

The organic movement, too, has been corrupted so as to be almost meaningless in many cases. The federal standards to be considered “organic” are too lax, and many big companies slap the word “organic” on unhealthy food items as a sales tool. Also, many foods are labeled as “natural” to suggest they are healthy. Well, lard is natural, but if I consume it straight from the package daily, I will likely need a quadruple bypass eventually.

I fear that oncology, which is justifiably one of the biggest areas of interest in pharma, biotech and diagnostic research, is heading down a similar path.

These concepts began to swirl in my brain a bit some months back when I was interviewing a source for an article dealing with gene-based therapies. He had made an offhand comment about how so many companies were entering the ‘omics space in general—from genomics to proteomics to metabolomics and beyond—that he wondered if there were too many companies trying to jump onto the bandwagon, and he added, “much like we’ve seen with oncology.” He pondered whether they were all there for the sake of the science or if many of them were there to simply make money on the next hot thing. He worried that the cacophony and clutter of too many cooks in the ‘omics kitchen might spoil the broth. And in his mind, he had already seen that happen with oncology.

The thoughts began to come to a full boil when I was doing research for my “Foursome aims to be outsourcing force” article for the October 2010 issue of ddn, and I noticed this tidbit in another article about the merger of Averion International, Trio Clinical Research, Fulcrum Pharma and Clin-Research/ADDPLAN into one global biopharmaceutical and medical device development services organization:

While both Averion and Fulcrum Pharma share a specialty in oncology studies, Donnelly said the company’s focus will be more about bringing new processes and techniques to drug development rather than touting therapeutic expertise in specific areas. “Everybody out there is saying, ‘We are the oncology CRO.’ It’s the largest market out there, so everyone wants to be that. But we want to take that knowledge to the next generation as far as being able to do adaptive trials with it. That’s a differentiator,” he said.

Imagine that. Companies that were known for their oncology expertise, but the field is so crowded that to stand out, they downplay their oncology focus a bit.

It suggests that perhaps things have gotten too crowded.

It’s not that I begrudge anyone making money off of an oncology discovery or product. Far from it. Also, I appreciate the many new strategies and innovations that are helping to provide more hope for people who have been touched by cancer or who fear they might be.

But what I really want to see in the field are academic institutions, companies and other entities who are passionate about beating cancer.

What I fear, though, is that perhaps some are in it just for the money or prestige. They want to be the one who comes up with the next big idea or gets rich from it, and might be willing to put something other than their hearts and minds into the process to make sure that happens. They might be willing to rush, or cut corners, or overlook simpler and cheaper solutions.

It’s not likely a huge problem yet. But I wonder if it will become one. I would hate to see cancer become merely a market opportunity or a fad. I want organizations and the researchers within them to want to beat cancer, because I feel that’s the motivator that will truly lead to cures.

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October 13, 2010 Posted by | Academia & Non-Profit, Corporate, Labwork & Science | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment