November 19, 2017 / All Stories

Three key questions to help you spot R&D leaders

Innovation is the heart of leading biopharmaceutical companies, but not everyone who promises it can deliver it. Here are a few key questions to help you tell the real pioneers from the pretenders.

By Michael E. Severino, M.D.
Executive vice president, research and development, chief scientific officer AbbVie

Not all biopharmaceutical companies are created equal.

Every company touts itself as a cutting-edge innovator, pointing to this recent breakthrough or that new research initiative in a white-hot field as evidence. In some cases, though, there’s more smoke than fire behind those claims.
If you are a job candidate, or a small biotech looking for the ideal partner in areas such as immunology, oncology, virology or neurology, you will want to dig a little deeper. Which companies have research and development (R&D) programs that are focused on making a real difference, and give you an opportunity to do the same? Answers to a few key questions will help you tell which companies walk their R&D talk.

1. Do they prioritize research and development?

Real innovation requires a productive R&D engine at the heart of the company. It’s the best sign of a company’s long-term commitment to breakthrough innovation, and it’s the backbone of a company’s scientific culture.

That doesn’t mean every new idea comes from within; the best companies recognize the best basic science ideas regardless of their source. Partnerships with other organizations, such as AbbVie’s recently announced collaborations with Boehringer Ingelheim and with various academic research centers, are important for all biopharmaceutical leaders. Their internal R&D horsepower, though, is what enables them to take those initial ideas and consistently turn them into potential new medicines.

You can measure that success by looking at a company’s pipeline. The best have broad clinical pipelines spanning all phases of development, from early pre-clinical work to large registration studies. They’re also consistently more successful than their peers in moving potential new drugs through clinical development and on to approval. The IDEA Pharma's 2017 Productive Innovation Index ranked AbbVie No. 2 among the top 30 pharmaceutical companies most successful at developing and commercializing new medicines.

Prioritizing R&D also demands significant, consistent financial resources to support the early laboratory work, the pre-clinical tests and all those clinical trials. Since becoming an independent biopharmaceutical company in 2013, AbbVie has substantially increased its R&D spending, reaching $4.2 billion in 2016, on par with its peers. 

Similarly, in the last few years many of the industry leaders have increased their investment in R&D. As a result, the pace of drug discovery and innovation is accelerating dramatically. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved 114 new drugs or indications in 2015, including 45 never before approved for any use in the United States – a new record. The quality of those approvals, in terms of the benefit to patients, is increasingly higher, and in some instances is remarkable. Hepatitis C, for example, is being revolutionized by therapies that can cure more than 95 percent of treated patients.

2. Are their R&D efforts focused, and focused on the right things?

You can’t be good at everything, especially in the life sciences. The fields are too broad, the science is too complex and resources are finite. As a result, it’s important for companies to focus on those areas in which they have deep expertise, where the science is ripe for new breakthroughs, and that have synergies with the rest of their R&D engine.
At AbbVie, for example, our focus is on discovering, developing and delivering drugs for immunology, virology, oncology and neurology. Those areas include tough-to-treat diseases where game-changing therapies are urgently needed, such as rheumatoid arthritis, hepatitis C, chronic lymphocytic leukemia and Alzheimer’s disease.
That sharper focus helps us make more strategic decisions about where to invest, based on which opportunities will strengthen our pipeline and potentially create synergies with our existing research efforts.

3. Do they invest in and leverage the latest technology?

Drug development technology is changing rapidly, and it’s revolutionizing how we identify, explore and develop new opportunities. That’s especially true in genetics and genomics, where the technology has become so much more accessible. It used to take years and be very expensive to sequence a genome. Now it can be done in a couple of days for less than $2,000. That has the potential to help us bring new treatments to patients even faster.
With the autoimmune disease lupus, for example, scientists historically tested potential drugs in rodents genetically modified to develop a disease that mimics lupus. Those models lacked many of the important features of lupus, but they were the best option we had. Today, we can instead study the genetic profiles of many lupus patients to identify the mutations that cause their disease.

We can use that information, combined with gene editing technology, to more quickly develop and test potential treatments. For example, a new, easy-to-use, gene-editing tool called CRISPR/Cas9 makes it possible to edit a genome more precisely and much faster than ever before. It is so revolutionary that it’s even gaining attention in consumer publications ranging from Popular Mechanics to Newsweek. Scientists are exploring a wide range of uses, from genetically modifying crops to eliminating viruses and screening for specific disease-causing genes.

Deploying those tools in our research labs will make an enormous difference in drug discovery and development. Because CRISPR/Cas9 is so much easier to use, we can test our ideas much faster, which means we can get to the right answer sooner.


The emphasis on innovation is likely to continue across the biopharmaceutical industry, and we will see the pace of drug discovery and development continue to accelerate, because the outside world is placing a high value on it.
Some companies, however, will make the right investments, focus on critical therapeutic areas and capitalize on new technology in ways that will make them real R&D leaders. Identifying them won’t be easy, but whether you’re an oncology researcher looking for your next career opportunity, or an academic or biotech leader searching for a partner, knowing which smart, thoughtful questions to ask is half the battle.

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