Why bioinformatics matters more than ever
Charles Dickens' epic line "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." aptly describes the current state of the life sciences space. On the one hand, there are exciting possibilities brought about by the convergence of biological sciences and information technology - leading scientists to proclaim this as the century of bioinformatics. On the other, unprecedented challenges are arising from macro-economic, demographic and industry-specific factors.
Let's start with the last one - industry-specific factors. The dominant players in the $900 billion global pharmaceutical industry are at a crucial juncture, because within the next three to four years, drugs worth $150 billion in revenue, will go off patent. At the same time, new drug creation has become prohibitively expensive, costing, on an average, more than US$ 1 billion to take a drug from concept and R&D through clinical trial and FDA approval, before it can be put into the market. Understandably, pharmaceutical companies are struggling to put their innovation investment to work.
Governments in the U.S. and Europe are the biggest healthcare spenders, and they are currently undergoing budget crises. This will force a tactical cutback in R&D investments and may put the discovery of blockbuster drugs on the back burner. Any big-ticket research is likely to be confined to the drug company's traditional areas of strength, such as cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's or pain medication. There is good news here, however. Big pharma reduction in moon-shot research will leave the door open for smaller companies to make bigger and bolder moves. I anticipate that in the near future, revolutionary drug research will be driven not by large single investments, but rather by the collective resources of an ecosystem comprising pharmaceutical companies, large IT firms, government agencies and individual research labs (yes, the mom and pop stores of the business). The role of technology in enabling the pharmaceutical industry to realize the stuff of dreams - the next wonder drug, for example - cannot be overstated.
We could not have mapped the human genome without bioinformatics. Today, there are devices, which can determine a gene sequence for about US$ 1,000. It is conceivable that in future, people will be able to figure out their own genomes using such gadgets, at even lower cost. Technological advancement has brought down the cost of research infrastructure (and the monopoly of large research firms) to such an extent that individual researchers are now setting up home labs.
All these outcomes, whether it is the deciphering of the personal genome, the creation of consumer health alliances or the mushrooming of startup labs, will result in enormous exchange of data, the mining and analysis of which will require huge computing power and software development. Large-scale pharmaceutical companies - which have the most to gain or lose - should seize the initiative to drive this ecosystem. In fact, they're the only ones who have the credibility and resources to obtain statutory approvals. Similarly, it is left to the large technology players to create the massive IT infrastructure that is required. It is likely that this will lead to joint ventures and alliances between big pharma and tech. Would a merger be possible? Why not? Innovation is imperative for the life sciences industry, and its complexity and need for specialized capabilities are best managed through co-creation.
We are looking at an industry where potential is limitless, the competition brutal and the stakes enormous. And it's best described as going through the best and the worst of times...
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