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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Big pharma has gone nuts

Merck's scheme to demand reimbursement when they can't repeat academic results will create an adversarial relationship between academia and industry.

I 've defended the pharmaceutical industry many times on these pages. But their attacks on academic science are making that harder than ever.

One of their biggest failings is their new fad of cutting costs by trying to commoditize results from the public research literature—a purpose for which it was not designed, and which cannot work. But as Ed Silverman on StatNews put it, academic labs are now, whether they realize it or not, in the business of generating drug leads for industry.

Now someone named Michael Rosenblatt of Merck & Co., presumably writing with permission from the company, has invented a mad scheme [1] for a money-back guarantee for industry labs to get a refund from universities whenever they pick a finding that they can't replicate. Big Pharma seems intent on following the Martin Shkreli business model: get something for nothing and charge an arm and a leg for it. A self-serving narrative is starting to take hold in the pharmaceutical industry that lets them blame someone else for their commercial failures.

In fact, there already is a mechanism for doing what Rosenblatt wants. It's called a contract. It's very simple: the company hands out funding to the universities, specifying who, when, how, and what results they would like. If the lab fails to comply, the company can expect a refund. This is basically what Rosenblatt is proposing.

There's only one problem with it. When the company tries to publish the results, they can expect their result to be dismissed as being commercially biased and therefore not credible. It would be considered a form of drug advertising.

To be fair, I've seen how some industry labs do research and I understand why they would want to outsource it.

Just last week I had to explain to an industry person that 4½ milliliters of phosphate buffered saline in a test tube is not the same as a cell pellet. He argued with me, saying if that were true I should have said it in the SOP. Our technician had to revise his assay to accommodate their sample. I should have declared it an invalid sample and thrown it in the biohazardous waste bin.

Another time a big pharma company decided test an academic lab's experiments. They got exactly the same results as the academic lab, even though the company used the wrong cell line. But the company's error bars were so large their results were not statistically significant. The academics were happy with the result. The industry people, expecting a 100% change, pronounced it a failure.

The incident left bad feelings on both sides. But it was not a failure to replicate. It was a failure of expectations. And that is what is evident in Rosenblatt's proposal. I've seen it over and over in industry: they blame academia for the failures caused by their flawed business model.

Until now I would have considered it impolite to mention these incidents. Science is immensely hard to do, and at least the industry was trying. And to be fair, there are some very good scientists there. But a self-serving narrative is taking hold in Big Pharma that lets them blame someone else when they have trouble. And it is enormously destructive.

Academic and industry scientists still have a good relationship. But that will change if this new fad takes hold. This plan would slowly corrode the relationship, turning academic scientists, who are normally friendly to industry—unlike those in the humanities—into adversaries.

When Big Pharma's stock tanks, maybe I should ask them for my investment money back. After all, corporations should be able to replicate their stock values.

Maybe we deserve a refund too when we spend a third of a million bucks on a piece of equipment and discover it doesn't do what it was advertised to do without major tweaking. Or when we spend weeks trying to find ways around their crashing software while their tech support, when we can reach them, tells us incorrect—unreplicable—information. Or when we buy ELISA plates at $650 apiece that give such an irreproducible signal we can't use them. We've spent months and tens of thousands of dollars trying to get around that problem. Who compensates us for that?

Technically these products aren't defective, so we can't demand a refund. They just make our results ... harder to replicate.

Maybe this is in the industry's culture. It has created many enemies for them. It was only a matter of time before they started alienating their friends.

Updated May 12 2016 7:41 am


1. M. Rosenblatt, An incentive based approach for improving data reproducibility. Sci. Transl. Med. 8, 336ed5 (2016).

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