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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

AstraZeneca vs the CCS

In a drunkards walk there was an example of decisions based on improper data sets. A movie producer was hailed as a success after a string of money making films. Then there was a string of less successful films and she was fired. If the data set was taken as one set, the leadership would have realized that the producer was par for the course over of her tenure.

AstraZeneca is going down the same path. The CEO believes in R&D.
Brennan’s commitment to research has its origins at Merck & Co., when the U.S. drugmaker dominated global drug discovery and blockbusters were easier to find. He joined Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based Merck as a 21-year-old salesman in 1975, and was there when the company’s labs pioneered new ways to treat hypertension and cholesterol.

“This is what David saw happening,” says P. Roy Vagelos, who ran Merck’s R&D and later, when he became CEO, promoted Brennan to run its collaboration with Swedish drugmaker Astra AB, a predecessor to AstraZeneca.

David, the CEO, saw something happening at Merck while working as a salesman. Now he is a CEO and he is going to save the science culture at AstraZeneca. He finds others who have succeeded, so he thinks. Let us refer to the Cargo Cult Science speach once again. The natives observed the Allied forces building and operating their airport. They took notes and replicated the work. How is David saving R&D? By hiring people he thinks have succeeded.

Menelas Pangalos helped build an industry-leading pipeline of experimental drugs at Wyeth, helping persuade Pfizer Inc. to buy the company in 2009 for $68 billion. He was lauded by New York-based Pfizer’s then-CEO Jeffrey Kindler for his “incomparable” expertise.

At 43 Panalos has not had a history of scientific success. He was in the right place at the right time when some "experimental drugs" were put into a pipeline. Where are those drugs now? What exactly did Panalos do?

Like the movie producer, people in positions such as Panalos live and die on the decisions of others. Statistics tell us that someone has to emerge in the position Panalos was in that so impressed David. Together they have gone over the highly unsuccessful R&D branch (the airport) and they have honed it into what they think will work. It sounds as though they've sat in an office and worked out a plan to change the shape of the Cargo Cult Airport Controllers' "two wooden headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas".

But wait, they brought in a scientist. Martin Mackay is president of R&D. Now we are going to get closer to the problem. In a recent setback the U.K. drugmaker failed to win U.S. approval for a new blood thinner, Brilanta, to rival Plavix, the world’s second-best selling drug. Regulators didn’t ask for new clinical trials for the drug. and “Our highest priority is to provide the requested Plato analyses to the FDA,” Martin Mackay, AstraZeneca’s president of research and development, said in the company’s statement.

So Martins job is to articulate what the company is doing scientifically. The people he communicates with are indeed part of the problem. The FDA, the board of directors... All of these people are convinced that they are the judge and jury of scienticif merit and progress. As we have seen, even their success stories lead to death and/or a lower quality of life. The formula AstraZeneca has come up with puts new symbols into a formula that never calculated anything. It is the logic that is missing.

I would suggest taking one project at AstraZeneca and subject it to the CCS Manual For Discovery. What seems trivial to the big picture guys is actually the core of scientific discovery. Building a solid foundation for a project is non-negotiable. What was once considered trivial must now be written about by the highest members of the R&D staff. It must be clear to the laboratory workers what the leadership thinks is happening. Then give the laboratory staff the opportunity to "bend over backwards to prove them wrong". Most importantly, document everything. In general, I suggest flipping the project upside down for a change. Let the guys in the lab judge the words of the executives. After all, they have scientific backgrounds and laboratories to help them make their points. People in offices have their words and their arrogance. That is the old formula. Nothing has changed at AstraZeneca. The new leadership is focused on dealing with issues left behind by the old leadership. The laboratory scientists are left in their labs to figure out the new structure of discovery while those who created it try to get the FDA to approve Brilinta.

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