What is the challenge of every scientist? It is balancing an innovation and the time it takes for development, says Maria José Lallena, Director of the R&D center of the pharmaceutical company Lilly.
World Science Day has recently been commemorated, an event that is celebrated within the framework of the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development. Science and Sustainability are two key concepts for Lilly. How do these two subjects come together and how do science and sustainability go hand in hand in your company?
For Lilly, both science and sustainability are anchored in the purpose of our company: to improve the lives of people around the world. Science contributes to the development of Humanity, without a doubt, and in our case, drug discovery is the basis of our activity because Lilly’s objective is to provide patients with innovative medicines to respond to unresolved medical solutions, improving the evolution of your disease or increasing the quality of your life.
From the point of view of sustainability, when developing an activity, companies must obtain a balance between good economic results, their social impact and also their impact on the environment. Being a health company, Lilly has an important impact on society, not only because it contributes to improving the health of patients around the world, but also because of how it tries to maintain and improve the well-being of its employees, including for example values such as diversity and inclusion. On the environmental side, we measure, analyze and minimize the impact on the planet. Specifically in the part of preclinical research, an area that I direct at Lilly Spain,
For this reason, these two concepts go hand in hand, since what we do is as important as how we do it: with integrity, ethics, caring for our people, generating a positive social impact and impacting the environment as little as possible.
With the pandemic, the importance of science as a powerful weapon to combat diseases has been highlighted. But behind each piece of research, in your case of medicines and solutions that improve people’s lives, there is a lot of work and great teams. How do you work at Lilly to give this boost to scientific findings and turn them into medicines available to patients and what team of scientists do you have in Spain?
Our group of scientists does not work alone, we believe that collaboration with both academic institutions and clinical groups is essential for the generation of innovative therapies that improve the life of the patient. We at Lilly work in three steps. First, we identify where the patient’s needs lie.
Next, we define the targets responsible for the disease. Third, globally with the different disciplinary groups within our company, we generate a possible therapy that helps improve the patient’s life. Our Alcobendas group, focused on small molecules, is made up of 110 scientists. More than 60% of them are doctors and we have biochemists, pharmacists, chemists, as well as computer scientists and engineers. We have more than 35 years of experience working in different disease areas with a main focus on oncology and endocrinology. I would say that our strength is mainly teamwork. The discovery of new drugs is not an easy job and requires a lot of resilience, patience and enthusiasm, three attributes that define our R&D group in Alcobendas. Data that reflect this complexity: every 10,000 molecules that we synthesize, perhaps 1 can become a medicine. Pre-clinical research time lasts approximately 3-5 years, to which must be added clinical development that lasts 10-15 years, depending on the disease. In other words, until we see if our work has been successful enough to have an impact on the patient, an average of 15 years have passed.
Researching a drug takes a lot of time and a considerable financial investment, is that correct? How does research that falls by the wayside affect the company?
Indeed, as I explained, the average time it takes for a drug to develop until it becomes a treatment option for the patient is approximately 15 years. For this reason, we must be very patient to see the fruit of our labor. But, in addition, unfortunately, most of the candidates do not manage to achieve it. In the more than 35 years of research history at the Alcobendas R&D Center, in Madrid, we have worked on more than 50 projects and to date, we have only seen one project that has been successfully completed. In other words, 35 years investing in science, with all the costs that this entails.
According to the international report by the consulting firm Deloitte “Ten years on. Measuring the return from pharmaceutical innovation 2019”, the average cost of developing a drug has gone from 816 million dollars in 2010 to 1,918 million dollars in 2019. In research, you not only learn from successes, mistakes provide us with a lot relevant information for future research. For this reason, we have to accept such a high economic loss. If it were not so, no one would engage in research and science would not advance. For this reason, it is important that society is aware of the high cost of innovation so that it can value it as a whole.
Find the rest part of the interview (in Spanish) on OKDiario website.