Research is the Key to Innovation

Inhalation Drug Development
Inhalation Drug Development

Delivering Value Through Innovation

Innovation is a word that is used a lot – I just put the word in Google and got 399,000,000 results in 0.41 seconds – and it is applied to a whole range of things, from self-driving cars to plants that play music.

All very interesting, I’m sure, but what interests us at Boehringer Ingelheim is medical innovation, something that is not all that easy to define. Put simply, however, our innovative medicines are designed to help patients live longer, healthier and more productive lives.

Being a research-driven pharmaceutical company with a 130-year history, ‘value through innovation’ has been our vision for a long time and the treatments we have developed in our own laboratories show that this vision has become reality. The last 20 years have seen a host of medicines discovered and developed by Boehringer Ingelheim that have transformed a number of disease areas.

I myself feel privileged that I have had the chance to contribute to getting a number of these approved over the last 5.5 years.

Research is the Key to Innovation

Innovation driven by our own scientists

One need only look at how Spiriva (tiotropium) has become the most prescribed maintenance therapy for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in the world, while our blood thinner Pradaxa (dabigatran) became the first new oral anticoagulant for stroke prevention in Atrial Fibrillation to be approved in more than 50 years.

More recently, we took the brave step of entering the fiercely-competitive field of oncology, a move which raised eyebrows among some observers. Many companies would have been happy to simply consolidate in areas where they excel – in our case respiratory and cardiovascular – but one of the attractions of being an independent family owned company is that we can afford to invest in innovation and go into areas of high unmet medical need.

Oncology is clearly one of them and our scientists, understanding that the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach no longer works in this area, have focused on developing targeted therapeutics that will, as I said earlier, help patients live longer, healthier and more productive lives. The recent approvals of two non-small cell lung cancer treatments – Giotrif (afatinib) and Vargatef (nintedanib) – show that our philosophy of value through innovation is bearing fruit.

Our own scientists have always been at the cutting edge of medical innovation and Boehringer Ingelheim’s commitment to R&D is clear. Last year, we invested 23% of prescription medicine sales in this area, well above the industry average.

Innovation driven by partnerships

However, we know that we also have an awful lot  to learn from researchers working outside our walls. With more than 50% of our early-mid stage pipeline filled with medicines that are derived from external collaborations, it is clear that partnering is an essential part of Boehringer Ingelheim’s R&D strategy.

Of the myriad joint ventures we have with academia and other companies, I would like to highlight some of them, including two in oncology. The first sees us working with Vanderbilt University in the USA (which is actually older than Boehringer Ingelheim, having been founded 140 years ago!) to develop new RAS inhibitors for the treatment of cancer.

Mutations in the RAS family are found in 20%-30% of all human tumours and it has been a particularly difficult protein to target since its discovery in human cancers more than 30 years ago. Combining the novel techniques developed by Vanderbilt with our resources and expertise makes for a powerful drug discovery team.

This partnership has personal significance for me as the first two RAS genes were discovered at the National Institutes of Health, an institution at which I had the chance to do research at from 1991 to 1995.

Secondly, we signed a deal a couple of months ago with Eureka Therapeutics to develop next-generation cancer immunotherapies targeting intracellular oncogenes. The latter represent 90% of cancer-specific antigens, many of which were considered undruggable targets until recently, and as Eureka’s CEO Cheng Liu said, the two of us working together will “advance the immuno-oncology frontier and address some of the most challenging unmet medical needs”.

Innovation is the first thing we look for in partnering, and we are always seeking

projects with differentiating features especially in established indications. We are major players in cardiometabolic diseases, not least through our diabetes alliance with Eli Lilly signed in 2011, and we are also developing a number of early-stage programmes in this area.  As an endocrinologist by training, I am particularly excited about the progress we are making in this area.

Take for example the deal we signed in May with the University of Michigan to study mechanisms of diabetic nephropathy in Pima Indians in Arizona, a population known for its propensity to develop diabetes and subsequently, kidney disease. The unique research design consists of more than 10 years of prospective evaluation of the Pima Indian patient population which will allow us to look for targeted therapies in diabetic nephropathy that are urgently needed to slow or halt the progression of this devastating disease.

May was a busy month for Boehringer Ingelheim as we also acquired rights to a Phase I anti-inflammatory drug from Australia’s Pharmaxis which shows potential as a treatment for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). The latter, which can be brought on by type 2 diabetes and obesity, is the progressive form of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, the most common liver disorder in Western industrialised nations. It is regarded as a major cause of fibrosis and cirrhosis of the liver and is considered an area of high unmet clinical need.

I know, I’m using that phrase of unmet need again, but this is what we do – we are committed to  sharing our resources and research to help stimulate innovation and accelerating the development of new treatments. That is what we aspire to, genuine medical innovation.

Long term partnerships will continue to deliver Value Through Innovation

It is also important to stress that we are in this for the long term and we have a long tradition of partnering. Some of our alliances last for many years and Boehringer Ingelheim is recognised from the halls of Harvard to the brightest biotechs as a trustworthy and loyal partner.

Our internal and external efforts are helping us to push the innovation boundaries and our commitment to research will hopefully see us break through them, again and again.

As a final thought, many of my colleagues – past and present – and those I have worked with outside of Boehringer Ingelheim, will know that I passionately believe that innovation in the pharmaceutical sector goes beyond medicines.

But this ‘beyond the pill’ topic is one that to do justice to I’ll revisit in a future post.

In the meantime, I’d love to hand the discussion over to you. I’d love to hear what ‘Value Through Innovation’ in medicine means to you?

Date of Preparation 21 July 2015

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