There has been a flurry of activity at pharmaceutical giant Takeda. Two years ago it promoted Christophe Weber to CEO, the first non-Japanese CEO of the 236-year-old company. Last year, research and development chief Andy Plump began a reorganization, bringing in a major partner to help streamline drug development and direct resources to the most promising candidates. And just last month the company boosted its oncology portfolio with a $5.2 billion purchase of Ariad Pharmaceuticals.
In a Feb. 23 talk on the MIT Sloan campus, Plump, who is chief medical and scientific officer at Takeda, explained his approach to drug development, one that focuses on collaboration, a willingness to push only the best projects forward, and taking advantage of the burgeoning biotech community surrounding MIT.
“Today, we have access to what would’ve been sci-fi five years ago,” he said. “Today, we can take a cell from your body and use it to treat almost any disease; we can treat cancer with your cells. It’s remarkable. But what’s really interesting is that those technologies aren’t coming from our labs; they’re coming out of MIT, and you’re finding a way to translate them through the biotech sector,” he said.
Here are four takeaways from Plump’s career and talk.
Marketing must be transparent. Plump began his career at pharmaceutical giant Merck, the industry standard-bearer for much of the 20th century. But the company and the industry as a whole came under scrutiny in 2004 when New England Journal of Medicine editor Marcia Angell wrote “The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It.”
“Marketing became highly suspect. It was clearly unethical, and there were compliance and ethics breaches occurring. Now there’s incredible regulation on the marketing side,” Plump said.
He pointed to the landmark $4.85 billion settlement Merck paid after its Vioxx painkiller was shown to increase users’ risks of heart attacks and strokes.
“There was over-marketing,” he said. “With every medicine, there will be a safety issue. There is no medicine that is a safe medicine. On the R&D side, the level of integrity trying to understand it was immense. But with the timing, a lot of marketing was going on, and Merck needed to be transparent.”
Don’t isolate yourself. Plump cautioned against pharmaceutical companies’ tendency toward insularity, relying solely on their own scientists for discovery. The mindset that “it doesn’t have to be invented here” can be hard for scientists to accept, he said, but ignoring that mindset can restrict innovation.
“From the late 1990s until a few years ago, there was a cash infusion [in the industry]. The response was to build brick-and-mortar facilities, mostly in New Jersey, and to hire lots of people, smart people, put barbed wire fences up, and focus internally. Guess what? It didn’t work,” he said.
He encouraged pharmaceutical companies to welcome external innovation and partnerships. At Merck, he said, it was tempting to remain insulated because the company’s scientists were so renowned.
“Merck was bar none the best. But they thought they were the best. Very often Merck would enter a collaboration and take over,” he said.
Temper passion with objectivity. In his time at French drugmaker Sanofi, Plump streamlined the research pipeline, a difficult task given scientists’ devotion to their own projects.
“We went from 500 down to 60 projects. It’s not just a job, it’s a passion for scientists, like a child,” he said. “The biggest compliment I ever got was from a scientist actually thanking me for taking him off a project. It’s hard for a scientist who is so passionate to be objective. We need to instill a culture of objectivity.”
At Takeda, Plump is underway with a similar effort to streamline operations to focus on the most promising drug candidates.
Failure is helpful. “[At Takeda], we fail frequently,” Plump said, citing the Japanese proverb “fall seven times, stand up eight.” A culture where failure is accepted harnesses new discovery, he said.
“You have to embrace failure, honorable failure. When we have a failure now, we bring it to a public setting and we learn from it,” he said, arguing that many pharmaceutical companies are too conservative and discourage failure, sometimes at the expense of innovation.
However, he said that partnerships with outside companies will make it easier to fail, and to fail fruitfully.
“I also believe that the model we’re building, which will be externally facing and engaging partners, will allow us to fail more easily. If you’re investing at arms’ length in a partner and they fail, it’s easier to let them go and move on,” he said.