Tired of Patients vs. Profits? Quit Throwing Fuel on the Fire

Last Updated Jul 9, 2009 10:51 PM EDT

Is anyone else tired of hearing that drug companies care more about profits than patients? Me, too. But even more tiresome than the anti-pharma rhetoric is the fact that industry keeps pouring fuel on the fire.

True, most drug makers got into the business in order to help people. "Making medicine is hard, folks," Michael Zimmer eloquently notes on his blog. "Honestly, if all they wanted to make was money, they would be making porn."

But the bad behavior of industry keeps muddying that simple insight. I'm not even talking about the big pharma marketing scandals and fake medical journals -- I'm talking biotech here.

A fair bit of it doesn't even get picked up by the lay press (for which biotech should thank its lucky stars). Like last month's spat between Biogen Idec and Genentech over the development of Rituxan (rituximab) and follow-on anti-CD20 antibodies. Biogen Idec didn't want Genentech to advance the drugs for new indications like neuromyelitis optica, multiple sclerosis and lupus because the new approvals would lower Genentech's royalty rate to Biogen Idec. Way to prioritize getting new drugs to patients in need.

The recent spate of headline-grabbing proxy fights hasn't helped the industry's cause either. As Karl Thiel wrote in a recent BioWorld Perspectives column:

In a fight between rich corporate raiders and the management of modestly sized biotech companies, all my instincts are to side with the latter.

I mean, on one hand you have the leaders of an industry trying to harness cutting edge science to bring new medicines to the sick. On the other, you have some of Wall Street's most brazen and aggressive personalities looking to pad already immense fortunes. As popularity contests go, it seems like a pretty uneven match-up.

So it pains me a bit to say that in the growing number of battles between companies and activist investors, it's the Wall Street guys who have been coming out looking more reasonable than our homegrown champions of medical progress.

He's referring to companies like Avigen, which preferred to sit back and collect salaries rather than liquidate as shareholders requested or consider what appeared to be an attractive acquisition by MediciNova. And then there's Enzon Pharmaceuticals, whose CEO can "almost never" be fired and makes an inordinately large salary, according to activist shareholders. Honestly, I felt a little guilty last month for criticizing Enzon's $250,000 to $500,000 per year price for ADA-SCID drug Adagen (pegadamase bovine) after readers pointed out that as an ultra-orphan disease, Enzon has to charge that much to make a profit. But maybe they could charge less if they reconsidered their executive pay policies.

Another black eye for biotech came with last month's ACLU lawsuit against Myriad Genetics over gene patenting. And I'm sure there are some I'm forgetting.

Every industry has a few bad apples-- but it might behoove biotech to stay on its best behavior, for the sake of all that biotech-related legislation making its way through Congress.

Oh yeah, and maybe because it's the right thing to do, too.

Fire image by Flickr user peasap, CC2.0

  • Trista Morrison

    Trista Morrison is a staff writer at BioWorld Today, a daily newspaper that