Competition Or Collaboration?

Once upon a time, there was a farmer who grew award-winning corn. Each year he entered his corn in the state fair where it won honour and prizes. Once a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learnt something interesting about how he grew it. The reporter discovered that the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbours’. “How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbours when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” the reporter asked. “Why sir, “said the farmer, “didn’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbours grow inferior, sub-standard and poor quality corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbours grow good corn.” The farmer offered interesting insight into the connectivity of life. His corn would not improve unless his neighbour’s corn also improved. Success, in life and work, does not happen in isolation. It is very often a participative and collaborative process. Simple yet profound!

I shared these thoughts with my colleague and friend Dr. Viraj Suvarna. He agreed. In fact, what he proposed was ‘competitive collaboration’. The concept is fascinating and he explained what he meant with an example. AstraZeneca markets Arimidex. Pfizer markets Aromasin and Novartis markets Femara. Issues with all the 3 brands are the same. Oncologists want to know which sub-set of women with breast cancer benefit most from which regimen. Should they be treated with single drugs? Should regimen comprise a combination? Do all patient groups respond similarly to these drugs?

To take off from where Viraj left, why can the industry not collaborate to help oncologists find the answers? Can the 3 companies come together and assist oncologists in doing what are known as ‘practical clinical trials’ which address issues of clinical and practical relevance? As representatives of the industry, can we not help doctor groups by subsidizing the cost of these expensive tests? We, (the industry) through collaboration, could help in protocol and CRF designing as well as database creation, analysis and report writing. It is important, however, to allow the clinical investigators to retain their independent stamp on the study.

The pharmaceutical industry may not want to collaborate on certain trial such as this. That’s because there are some underlying misgivings. The spirit of collaboration comes from the security of the thought of wanting to do something better for mankind at large. It is about rising, even if momentarily, above profit making and thinking about the larger good. It is not that one drug is better than the other. It is about finding out which patient responds to which drug/s the best.

Do innovator companies lose profit? I am not for a moment suggesting so. Revenue and profit is the lifeline for any firm to stay in the game. Through such collaboration, the industry just might convince doctor groups that drug companies think beyond profit. Call it a CSR project if you must, but the goodwill generated through such far-sighted approaches might work well to offset a lot of the ill repute of Big Pharma.

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