NIH NCATS Drug Repurposing

In his latest Forbes column, John LaMattina makes a number of very good points over the NIH plan to take existing drug candidates and use their resources to look for new applications that they may treat.

As LaMattina says, this would be great if it worked, but is it really likely and is there a better way that NIH could be spending its precious resources? Is this sort of sifting through the dusty shelves of the pharmaceutical industry panning for gold really what the NIH should be doing? I see this as the sort of activity a small start-up forms around, takes a chance on their find and then lives or dies. It is more than a little risky.

Curious Wavefunction makes the point (while broadly agreeing with LaMattina) that the pharma industry is not really doing all it can to discover new drugs, putting next quarter’s revenue forecast over a more long term outlook and it is hard to deny that the pharmaceutical industry has been rather self-destructive lately.

However, re-examining old drug candidates can’t be the best use of NIH funds. It is there to spur the research, the basic research, that will eventually lead to a practical impact upon society in the form of new treatments, new prevention, or things we can’t yet imagine. The old Molecular Libraries Program – now being phased out in favor of NCATS – made a stuttering start but my impression was that it was doing the right things, making high-through-put screening, modeling and some medicinal chemistry available to academia. Indeed, folks at Vanderbilt had praised its importance to their academic drug discovery program. The screening sites set up under this initiative now need to find their own funding which may be difficult in the current climate, but there has been some collaborative work with industry as industry also needs innovation in order to feed their dwindling pipeline. Pfizer has its Centers for Therapeutic Innovation, as well as a number of academic collaborations. Eli Lilly has its Open Innovation program. Other companies have made efforts in this area too.

However, it has to be said that the main player in starting the basic research programs that result in such innovation has historically been NIH and it seems to me that even a scaled back version should concentrate on its core function.


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