Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Scientist Urges Transparency to Deliver Drugs to Patients Sooner

It takes a big brain and a big-time swagger to transform the drug industry. And Aled Edwards a renowned University of Toronto biochemist and respected laboratory leader employs both to change the way drugs get into your medicine cabinet.

Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify


It takes a big brain and a big-time swagger to transform the drug industry. And Aled Edwards – a renowned University of Toronto biochemist and respected laboratory leader – employs both to change the way drugs get into your medicine cabinet.
The 47-year-old researcher says the current method of creating drugs – one shrouded in secrecy and driven by patents and money-making – has failed. Too few medicines have come to market in the past 30 years, which means too many people still get sick and die from disease.
Edwards believes the only way to get more medicines to patients is for industry and academia to work together – and to post all their findings free on the Internet.
It is a groundbreaking idea – one many said would be anathema to the billion-dollar drug industry, which for decades has thrived on the spoils of patented blockbuster drugs.
Yet, the open access philosophy is catching on, largely due to Edwards – a scientist's scientist who prefers shorts and sandals over a lab coat, shirt and tie – and his impressive, infectious, larger-than-life personality.
"For the last 30 years, the drug industry has less and less productive measured by dollars in and drugs out," says Edwards.
There are, he says, 600,000 scientists worldwide who research and develop new drugs. Yet only 20 new drugs emerge from the labs each year. Crunch the numbers and that means it takes 30,000 person-years – and billions and billions of dollars – to create one novel drug for patients.
"We wouldn't need to be changing anything if every year industry was spending less and less money and making more and more medicines for us," says Edwards. "But that's not happening."
Developing a new drug is difficult because scientists still have a relatively poor knowledge of human biology, says Edwards.
But, he argues, researchers can save time and money and have a better chance of creating new drugs if they share expertise and results.
If four pharmaceutical companies work secretly on the same target to treat disease and that target ultimately fails, then all four companies lose money, time and resources. But if they collaborate, at least at the outset, then the risk of failing – and currently 90 per cent of all drugs fail in the clinical trial process – is spread out.
"By sharing, you can reduce the risk," Edwards says.
He leads a three-lab conglomerate that is "walking the walk" in open access drug development. The international Structural Genomics Consortium – a not-for-profit organization run out of the Universities of Toronto and Oxford and Stockholm's Karolinska Institutet – is among the world's largest public-private partnerships in basic research.
The consortium, which brings together some 250 scientists from industry and academia, studies the three-dimensional structure of human proteins, essential for understanding human biology and a critical component of drug discovery.
Knowing the exact structure of a human protein and how it acts with other proteins will help researchers understand the molecular cause of disease. This, in turn, allows them to find molecular treatments, which could shave two to five years off the typical 12-year drug development timeline.
Edwards believes new cancer drugs will be the first to come down the open access drug pipeline because there is already so much research being done in that field.
In its first five years, the consortium, financed in part by four Canadian government agencies, has generated impressive results and garnered international praise.
Its scientists have produced structures for a fifth of all human proteins, do much of the research worldwide into the structural biology of human parasites, and publish about 70 significant scientific papers every year. All its findings are available free to any scientist.
More than 100 laboratories collaborate with the consortium. Three pharmaceutical giants – Merck, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline (a founding member) – also fund and work with the group.
That so-called "big pharma" has funnelled money into the consortium, even during a recession, shows how seriously it is considering the open access philosophy, says Roderick McInnes, scientific director of the Institute of Genetics at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which has funded the Structural Genomics Consortium from the beginning.
The consortium has also sealed its reputation for doing top-notch science, McInnes says, emerging in just five years as a world leader in structural biology. "This is a great Canadian success story."
Superior science and a struggling industry helped to sell the idea of open access drug discovery. But many in the consortium say the massive project would not have gone forward without Edward's leadership and vision.
"He is an unusual combination of a very successful entrepreneur and an internationally respected scientist," McInnes says.
Time will tell if collaboration will get more drugs to people quickly. It takes upwards of 10 years to develop a new drug, and the consortium is at least three years from its first open access clinical drug trial.
But Edwards, ever the eager salesman, sums up his belief in open access science quite simply:
"Look, I'm not some sort of Pollyanna Communist. This is the best way to make the pharmaceutical industry a profitable sector. It's also the best way to design and develop new medicines for our children."
By Megan Ogilvie
Source: Toronto Star