The discussion will look at the advantages and disadvantages of engaging with Big Pharma, and then look at what can attract Big Pharma to new territories. Our conclusions will be used to reflect broadly on what this may mean for the microbiome field.

Big Pharma are experts at making a business out of commercialising small- molecule therapeutics, including the calculation of associated risks. What could motivate them to leave this comfort zone and embrace the unknown? Adalimumab (Humira®) is a good motivation. In quarter-one 2020, AbbVie reported a US net revenue of $3.7 billion from sales of this human-monoclonal- antibody. Although not without their specific challenges, the development of therapeutic-antibody technologies is now fully embraced by Big Pharma. So, how do emerging technologies breakthrough the “small-molecule barrier” in a similar manner?

Emerging therapeutic technologies present an array of exiting opportunities. For example, the therapeutic-microbiome field. Currently not dominated by Big Pharma, we see many innovative SMEs dominating; all focused on driving the development of a small pipeline of bio-therapeutics. This has resulted in an impressive range of innovative products in development, often targeting conditions for which conventional “small molecule” drug discovery projects have failed to adequately address. In 2018 we saw the first acquisition of a microbiome company by Big Pharma (purchase of Rebiotix by Ferring). However, most Big Pharma are more tentatively venturing into the microbiome field via collaborations (e.g. MSD and 4D Pharma, Takeda and Finch).

Craig Thomson will be chairing a discussion between Dr Andrew Wells and Dr Alex Therien, Executive Director and Head of Investigational Biology at Merck’s Exploratory Science Center (ESC), who both have direct experience of what Big Pharma look for in emerging technologies.


Craig Thomson, Dr Andrew Wells and Dr Alex Therien

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