Drug development becomes even more complex as time passes. Increased regulation, new scientific methods, coupling of drugs with biomarkers, and an attempt to build drugs for much more specific populations – even individuals – all make clinical development more expensive and time-consuming. But the pressure is also constantly increasing to develop new, innovative medicines faster. So companies invest more dollars, with steadily decreasing yields in terms of such drugs on the market.
"Collaborations are in many cases the only possible solution--a powerful force driving old and new models."
The traditional models for clinical development are thus not producing the best results. Can collaboration between companies, academic institutions, and public (government and non-profit) organizations help solve the problem?
Collaboration has in fact yielded important developments in diagnostic and therapeutic products. However, truly collaborative efforts are in the minority. Particularly for biotech, diagnostic, device and pharmaceutical companies with stock traded on the public markets, or with funding from venture capital, private equity, or other investment-oriented platforms, there are strong drivers for limiting collaboration.
Particularly onerous are intellectual property (IP) concerns. Patent attorneys are normally terrified of collaborations, where the ownership of IP may be explicitly or implicitly impaired. Investment banks and fund managers are very nervous about modeling financial returns on new products where IP is shared. Development companies often have overt or implied policies greatly favoring internal development over collaboration. It could be argued that the greatest motivation behind the huge product in-licensing game is the desire to fully own product rights rather than to continue collaborations where the rights are not exclusive.
Bu the good news is that long-standing models and newer innovations in collaboration do work. Some examples are worth exploring. A huge influence currently on collaboration models across the spectrum is the revolution in immuno-oncology. More cash has gone into the development of drugs which enlist the immune system to attack cancer than any other field of drug development in history, some estimate by a factor of three. The great majority of current human clinical trials in the U.S. are in this field. There are over 200 separate drugs in development that attack a single target, PD-1--completely unprecedented. Due to the vast complexity of the human immune system, and also to the great promise that these drugs have shown in previously intractable cancers, the field has recognized that these drugs can only perform to full potential when used in combination. But the rationale for combinations is very obtuse, there are huge numbers of new drug targets and candidates, and there are many hundreds of institutions and companies involved in development of these combinations. Thus, collaborations are in many cases the only possible solution--a powerful force driving old and new models.
"As drugs have become more expensive, a huge drive has emerged, spurred by the brokers of health care, to limit the populations eligible to be prescribed an expensive new drug."
As marketing and reimbursement become increasingly complex, large commercial companies share the marketing of more products. Almost every large pharmaceutical and biotech company has products which are jointly sold with others.
Some pharmaceutical companies do a creditable job, often driven by ethical rather than economic concerns, of identifying drugs in their commercial or development portfolios which would be best in the hands of others, or which should be combined with products owned by others to achieve maximum patient benefit. Pfizer, for example, has a strong internal culture of not allowing products to become "dormant" in its hands, and actively seeks to collaboratively develop or license out such products.
Particularly in the immuno-oncology field, given the lack of firm knowledge about which combinations will work best in patients, both large and small companies are collaborating on both preclinical and clinical development. Merck, with its drug Keytruda, the leading anti-PD-1, has almost 1000 collaborative trials in progress. In most cases, the IP rights to a successful combination are not specified up-front; the desire is to see what works and deal with the rights and financial issues later.
Other companies have specifically engaged non-profit foundations and/or public bodies in collaborative efforts. This is of course not new--there is a very long history of pharmaceutical, diagnostic, and device companies either collaborating with the NIH or disease-focused foundations for development of products born from institutional research. The reverse is also true--both the NIH and foundations are often engaged to collaborate on development of products owned by industry. Sometimes these collaborations can be relatively complex. For example, Astra-Zeneca, Sloan Kettering, the Cancer Research Institute, and the National Cancer institute have engaged in a partnership to conduct clinical trials on combination cancer therapies involving the portfolio owned by Astra-Zeneca in combination with drugs owned by others, with device therapies and procedures, and with diagnostic products.
As drugs have become more expensive, a huge drive has emerged, spurred by the brokers of health care--the so-called 'insurance' companies and pharmaceutical benefit managers--to limit the populations eligible to be prescribed an expensive new drug. Thus, the field of "companion diagnostics" has crystallized. In a number of fields, including cardiology, urology, neurodegenerative disease, and oncology, developers of diagnostics and drugs seek each other out to jointly develop drug/diagnostic pairs which appropriately select patients for treatment. The number of such collaborations is escalating dramatically, although many large pharmaceutical companies have their own in-house programs.
"The lack of clinical trial data sharing has engendered some notable collaborative efforts."
But most large pharmaceutical companies are not in the business of selling diagnostic products, even if those products are so closely linked to a specific drug that they are included in the FDA-approved 'label' of that drug. As a result, some very collaborative relationships are emerging. Merck, which has a very large and active companion diagnostics development group, almost always seeks development and commercialization partners for internally innovated diagnostics – to the extent that the company actually gives away the rights and the commercial benefits of the diagnostic product. Such was the case with the Merck-developed Tau imaging agents related to Alzheimer's disease, which Merck made available without license to the entire industry. The company continues to drive such non-financial collaborations in other clinical disciplines.
Collaborations certainly take place between academic centers, but in comparison to others, they are few and of far less productive outcome. Many appear to be innovative and have great potential, but the results are often different. The collaboration between medical schools and research institutions in Northeast Ohio seems promising, but it is in large part just a means for gathering hard-to-find clinical trial patients into the giant local institutions, Case Western and the Cleveland Clinic. And the actual output of academic versus commercial development programs is usually poor. One new company recently did an exhaustive search for new clinical drug development candidates in a specific therapeutic area in academia and came up empty-handed, only to find a solid handful of candidate drugs "hiding" in pharmaceutical companies that they were willing to provide collaboratively or to license.
The lack of clinical trial data sharing has engendered some notable collaborative efforts. The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy initially set out to promulgate standards for clinical trial data collection to make trial results in the thousands of combination trials more comparable. However, after some initial frustration, they are now working collaboratively with biotech companies, academia, and pharmaceutical companies to drive forward specific combination trials that experts believe should be done.
Foundations and public organizations also enable or initiate collaborative research. The Prostate Cancer Foundation has aggressively put academic and hospital-based research institutions together with industry to push the development of new effective therapies and diagnostics for prostate cancer, with remarkable success. The Veterans Administration has recently embarked on an aggressive program of collaborations with industry (with the help of funding from the Prostate Cancer Foundation) to allow use of the VA population and the very complete patient records to start clinical trials and other development efforts that would otherwise be very difficult.
"The near future will bring some surprising collaborative successes in the development of new drugs, devices, and diagnostics, but of course, some serious disappointments as well."
Finally, the financial industry at times facilitates collaborations, although they are usually narrow. Fund managers often get two or more of their portfolio companies to pool assets and/or IP to push forward more rapid development, or to provide structure for developments that otherwise could not go forward due to size or other resource limitations. For example, Orbimed, a health-care-focused investment firm, consistently drives cross-company development efforts within its large portfolio of drug and device companies.
So collaborative efforts are very much alive and well, which is great news for patients. Current realities in science, politics, reimbursement, and finance are driving diversity in collaborative arrangements. The near future will bring some surprising collaborative successes in the development of new drugs, devices, and diagnostics, but of course, some serious disappointments as well. And the very negative influence of the IP profession on collaborations will not be soon defeated.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."
A highly contagious form of the coronavirus known as the Delta variant is spreading rapidly and becoming increasingly prevalent around the world. First identified in India in December, Delta has now been identified in 111 countries.
In the United States, the variant now accounts for 83% of sequenced COVID-19 cases, said Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a July 20 Senate hearing. In May, Delta was responsible for just 3% of U.S. cases. The World Health Organization projects that Delta will become the dominant variant globally over the coming months.
So, how worried should you be about the Delta variant? We asked experts some common questions about Delta.
What is a variant?
To understand Delta, it's helpful to first understand what a variant is. When a virus infects a person, it gets into your cells and makes a copy of its genome so it can replicate and spread throughout your body.
In the process of making new copies of itself, the virus can make a mistake in its genetic code. Because viruses are replicating all the time, these mistakes — also called mutations — happen pretty often. A new variant emerges when a virus acquires one or more new mutations and starts spreading within a population.
There are thousands of SARS-CoV-2 variants, but most of them don't substantially change the way the virus behaves. The variants that scientists are most interested in are known as variants of concern. These are versions of the virus with mutations that allow the virus to spread more easily, evade vaccines, or cause more severe disease.
"The vast majority of the mutations that have accumulated in SARS-CoV-2 don't change the biology as far as we're concerned," said Jennifer Surtees, a biochemist at the University of Buffalo who's studying the coronavirus. "But there have been a handful of key mutations and combinations of mutations that have led to what we're now calling variants of concern."
One of those variants of concern is Delta, which is now driving many new COVID-19 infections.
Why is the Delta variant so concerning?
"The reason why the Delta variant is concerning is because it's causing an increase in transmission," said Alba Grifoni, an infectious disease researcher at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. "The virus is spreading faster and people — particularly those who are not vaccinated yet — are more prone to exposure."
The Delta variant has a few key mutations that make it better at attaching to our cells and evading the neutralizing antibodies in our immune system. These mutations have changed the virus enough to make it more than twice as contagious as the original SARS-CoV-2 virus that emerged in Wuhan and about 50% more contagious than the Alpha variant, previously known as B.1.1.7, or the U.K. variant.
These mutations were previously seen in other variants on their own, but it's their combination that makes Delta so much more infectious.
Do vaccines work against the Delta variant?
The good news is, the COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer still work against the Delta variant. They remain more than 90% effective at preventing hospitalizations and death due to Delta. While they're slightly less protective against disease symptoms, they're still very effective at preventing severe illness caused by the Delta variant.
"They're not as good as they were against the prior strains, but they're holding up pretty well," said Eric Topol, a physician and director of the Scripps Translational Research Institute, during a July 19 briefing for journalists.
Because Delta is better at evading our immune systems, it's likely causing more breakthrough infections — COVID-19 cases in people who are vaccinated. However, breakthrough infections were expected before the Delta variant became widespread. No vaccine is 100% effective, so breakthrough infections can happen with other vaccines as well. Experts say the COVID-19 vaccines are still working as expected, even if breakthrough infections occur. The majority of these infections are asymptomatic or cause only mild symptoms.
Should vaccinated people worry about the Delta variant?
Vaccines train our immune systems to protect us against infection. They do this by spurring the production of antibodies, which stick around in our bodies to help fight off a particular pathogen in case we ever come into contact with it.
But even if the new Delta variant slips past our neutralizing antibodies, there's another component of our immune system that can help overtake the virus: T cells. Studies are showing that the COVID-19 vaccines also galvanize T cells, which help limit disease severity in people who have been vaccinated.
"While antibodies block the virus and prevent the virus from infecting cells, T cells are able to attack cells that have already been infected," Grifoni said. In other words, T cells can prevent the infection from spreading to more places in the body. A study published July 1 by Grifoni and her colleagues found that T cells were still able to recognize mutated forms of the virus — further evidence that our current vaccines are effective against Delta.
Can fully vaccinated people spread the Delta variant?
Scientists think it's unlikely that fully vaccinated individuals who have an asymptomatic infection are transmitting the Delta variant. That's because vaccinated people are thought to have relatively low levels of the virus in their respiratory tracts and therefore, they don't transmit as much virus.
Still, breakthrough infections can occur. If you have COVID-19 symptoms, even if you're fully vaccinated, you should get tested and isolate from friends and family because you could spread the virus.
What risk does Delta pose to unvaccinated people?
The Delta variant is behind a surge in cases in communities with low vaccination rates, and unvaccinated Americans currently account for 97% of hospitalizations due to COVID-19, according to Walensky. The best thing you can do right now to prevent yourself from getting sick is to get vaccinated.
Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in this week's "Making Sense of Science" podcast that it's especially important to get all required doses of the vaccine in order to have the best protection against the Delta variant. "Even if it's been more than the allotted time that you were told to come back and get the second, there's no time like the present," she said.
With more than 3.6 billion COVID-19 doses administered globally, the vaccines have been shown to be incredibly safe. Serious adverse effects are rare, although scientists continue to monitor for them.
Being vaccinated also helps prevent the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants. Viruses need to infect people in order to replicate, and variants emerge because the virus continues to infect more people. More infections create more opportunities for the virus to acquire new mutations.
Surtees and others worry about a scenario in which a new variant emerges that's even more transmissible or resistant to vaccines. "This is our window of opportunity to try to get as many people vaccinated as possible and get people protected so that so that the virus doesn't evolve to be even better at infecting people," she said.
Does Delta cause more severe disease?
While hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are increasing again, it's not yet clear whether Delta causes more severe illness than previous strains.
How can we protect unvaccinated children from the Delta variant?
With children 12 and under not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, kids are especially vulnerable to the Delta variant. One way to protect unvaccinated children is for parents and other close family members to get vaccinated.
It's also a good idea to keep masks handy when going out in public places. Due to risk Delta poses, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines July 19 recommending that all staff and students over age 2 wear face masks in school this fall, even if they have been vaccinated.
Parents should also avoid taking their unvaccinated children to crowded, indoor locations and make sure their kids are practicing good hand-washing hygiene. For children younger than 2, limit visits with friends and family members who are unvaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown and keep up social distancing practices while in public.
While there's no evidence yet that Delta increases disease severity in children, parents should be mindful that in some rare cases, kids can get a severe form of the disease.
"We're seeing more children getting sick and we're seeing some of them get very sick," Surtees said. "Those children can then pass on the virus to other individuals, including people who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated."