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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Therapeutic Long Tail. Does Cell Therapy Fit the Model? (Part II)

...this is a continuation of Part I...

So are Personalized Medicines the Long Tail of the Therapeutics Industry?

In 2006, Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief of Wired magazine, released "The Long Tail" – a book describing the Web 2.0-induced business-to-consumer economics (r)evolution enabling businesses to now deliver product at outrageously affordable prices to global micro-markets.[i] The book quickly became one of the most influential business books of the ‘new economy’.

Indeed this flat new world – as Thomas L. Friedman describes it[ii] – is all about micro-trends and micro-markets, empowering small companies and niche products to participate successfully in the marketplace along with Fortune 100 companies and blockbuster products. More than that, this paradigm shift is forcing product and service companies to revolutionize their business and pricing models, the latest and rabidly successful of which is the pricing model of “Free!”. The blockbuster-based business model that depends on the economics of a ‘hit’ (whether it’s a platinum-selling CD or a ‘blockbuster’ drug) is no longer seen to be the only way to make money and, indeed, may not have any future at all.

To date, this internet-driven Long Tail (r)evolution has had its largest impact on – if not been largely restricted to – the retail sector. Business-to-consumer (B2C) companies are now enabled like never before to profitably supply unique global products to meet customer demands. In this respect, the (r)evolution has had a visible impact on the retail side of the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. However the ongoing realization of “personalized products” as the future of medicine for consumers seems a perfect fit for the Long Tail economic model.

But does this apply to therapeutics?

To the extent that the Long Tail economy is less about the mass market and more about businesses succeeding in serving niche markets with unique and/or customized products, the analogy fits.

Certainly, it would appear the sun is setting on the "blockbuster hit" days of the therapeutics industry. In June 2008 Genentech's Susan Desmond-Hellmann, president of product development, when outlining the biotech giant's development strategy to a group at the Goldman Sachs healthcare conference, told the group that the blockbuster drugs of the past may never be duplicated. “Future drugs,” she stated, “will cater to a smaller, better defined group of patients” and “the days of big cholesterol-lowering drugs for millions of people may be behind us.” (link).

In a June 8, 2009 post, authors of the IN VIVO Blog stated that pharma "managers these days are learning to leverage only very modest top-line growth into faster bottom-line growth through cost-savings, bolt-on acquisitions, and rapid introductions of incrementally-improved new products. The traditional, high-risk, high-growth R&D-based model is gone, in case you hadn't noticed."

The second indication that personalized medicine fits with the Long Tail supply-demand model is that therapeutics can now be customized taking advantage of personalizing elements such as HLA-typing and advances in genetic, diagnostic, and discovery testing that will permit us to more effectively both pre-select which medicines are best suited for which patient sub-groups and develop therapies that are better suited to particular genetic groups. On the clinical end of the spectrum, advances in theragnostic tools and surrogate biomarkers (e.g., imaging) are allowing clinicians to much more rapidly assess personal responses to treatment and adjust their therapeutic regimines accordingly before any symptomtic response can be observed.

The ability to match therapeutics to genetic make-up, disease stage/presentation, or predisposition will allow the provision of treatments with more confidence in their expected efficacy, fewer patient-specific adverse reactions, and result in cost savings to the health care industry and a better return to fund the premium for the development of such products.

In a recent interview with Xconomy's Luke Timmerman, Alan Frazier, founder and managing partner of Seattle-based Frazier Healthcare Ventures, one of the world’s biggest life sciences venture capital funds, said,

The trend is toward smart pharmaceuticals that address smaller populations, narrower indications, with better results. It’s based on a better understanding of disease from genomics and proteomics. You’ll see more targeted drug delivery. You’ll have incredibly focused pharmaceuticals, which will take care of some of the safety issues you read about.

Does the model apply to cell therapies?

At the intersection of the personalized and regenerative medicine sectors, lies the therapeutic industry’s response to (or reflection of) both the demand for and the ability to deliver a more personalized therapeutic to the consumer (the patient).

If the tail of the therapeutics market is being stretched longer to include products better targeted to smaller markets, this therapeutics Long Tail will almost certainly include regenerative medicine (regen 2.0) products and many of these will be cell-based therapies.

The cell therapy sector now encompasses the convergence of three distinct technologies, i.e. cell transplantation, tissue engineering, and biomaterials. Often also drawn in are elements of gene and molecular (e.g., proteins and antibodies) therapies.

Autologous cell therapies are the ultimate personalized medicine and while such medicines are often not included in definitions of personalized medicine, any approach to regenerative medicine – whether using tissue engineered products, cell-based therapies, small-molecule drugs, scaffolds, nano or biobots, etc – intended to trigger in vivo regeneration or repair... is personal!

Again, to the extent the Long Tail economy is about “selling less of more” then medicines such as cell therapies will certainly be part of the long tail of the therapeutics industry giving access to highly-personalized, tailored products to meet the unique needs of the consumer.

But does the Long Tail economic model apply?

While there may well be blockbuster cell therapies in the future, concern around the scarcity of potential blockbusters in cell therapy are seated in the notion that the blockbuster economy is the only successful model.

Who thought you could make money by giving free access to internet searches and email? There are a lot of ways the analogy breaks down but what the Long Tail economy has shown us is modern corporate ingenuity in finding profitable business models in niche markets despite the long-standing dominance of blockbuster products.

Where the paradigm falls short, in my opinion, is when one realizes that a fundamental pillar to the Long Tail economy is the commoditization of products and production processes as well as the standardization of delivery systems. The Long Tail economic model is enabled by the fact that the cost of goods sold has been brought sufficiently low enough - by new technologies which allow for small batches to be produced and shipped - that the products in question are affordable to most. Highly unique and/or customized goods were always available to those with sufficient ability to pay. The Long Tail brings these kinds of products to micro-market at the same price or lower than their mass-market counterparts.

We are a long way from this kind commoditization of personalized medicines and, in particular, of cell-based therapies. There is little-to-no standardization of production systems at any scale. The next generation of these therapies will still be highly priced goods which many people, insurers, and/or healthcare systems will be pressed to afford.

In once sense, this is not surprising. Even in the world of electronic or digial products, Moore's principle only applies because the cost of goods for new technologies when they first enter the market are prohibiitively expensive. If the model applies in the therapeutics industry, technological advances in production will bring down the cost of goods and therfore the price.

On the other hand, what drives the price of therapeutics has not been so much the cost of goods (production) but the need to recoup massive upfront R&D costs which must be recovered (with a reasonable profit) during the life of a patent.

Will this change with personlized medicines and cell therapies? One could argue it might if personlized medicines and cell therapies can deliver on the promise to have a much higher effective rate among those given the therapies. Pharmaceuticals have a notoriously low effective rate among those prescribed any given drug. New research methodologies employing surrogate biomarkers, imaging, cell-based assays, etc promise the potential to significantly lower R&D costs by (a) getting to a much quicker "go/no-go" decision point in therapeutic development, and (b) identifiying patient sub-groups for which the therapeutic will have a high rate of effectiveness. One the one hand, this has the potential to lower the cost of goods (driven by R&D costs) and simultaneously justify a higher price point because of a high rate of therapeutic success.

However, even if we were able to materially lower upfront R&D costs, this still does not change the fact that cell therapies are costly to produce on a per-unit basis and the opportunity to "scale-up" is limited particlarly with autologous cell therapies which require lot sizes to be an individual batch. While this is a seperate discussion, I am confident technological and/or commercial innovation will find a way to economically bring therapeutics to market that are proven effective. I am not alone. Recenly Howard Liang, MBA, Ph.D., Analyst and Biotechnology Managing Direct at Leerink Swan as quoted as saying that “Autologous manufacturing is not the deal breaker it used to be. If these [cell-based] vaccines work for really difficult-to-treat diseases, the manufacturing issues will be worked out.” ("Special Report: Customized Cancer Vaccines Finally (Maybe) Arrive". GEN News Highlights. 12 June 2009)

There are other reasons the Long Tail business model as it is currently defined does not fit cookie-cutter with the therapeutics industry not the least of which is that the consumer demand does not solely regulate supply. In highly regulated industries, the economies are different. Some would argue this should not be the case particularly if personalized medicines, genomics,theragnostics, etc advance to point where the consumer has an abundance of therapeutic information and options but that is the subject of another discussion.

In the end, it is certainly clear to me that the emerging technologies are enabling new therapeutic paradigms that will introduce elements of the Long Tail business model into the therapeutics industry.

How much Impact will Cell Therapies Have on New Therapeutic Paradigms and Systems?

Despite the exponential escalation of cell therapy innovation, is cell therapy ready to be a viable business that will make any material impact on the therapeutic industry? For reasons which I will continue to explore in this blog in the months to come, I believe the answer is 'yes'.

The cell therapy industry has more products in late-stage development than many believe. While the existing commercial products are far from blockbusters and questions remain regarding the business models and potential margins for cell therapy products, ground-breaking research and market enthusiasm is driving a renewed interest among an early second-round of investors including participation by mature industry players making cautious plays in the sector. Regulatory issues in the primary markets of the US and EU are rapidly becoming less problematic though harmonization remains a significant challenge.

In blogs to come I will outline the commercial developments I see transpiring that make me believe the primary issues around the 'business models' question are being addressed. Regenerative and personalized medicines are enough of a force that creative business people will (a) invent ways to lower the cost of goods and (b) figure out how to price and reimburse appropriately to ensure effective therapies get to people that need them and incentivize doctors to prescribe them.

Most indicia point to this sector being poised for a phase that will start demonstrating real answers to those challenges which have to-date prevented many from participating in a sector that they believe presents too many unanswered risks.


As with so many of the paradigm-shifting economic revolutions in the past, once the underlying technologies exist, business and economic models radically adjust to reflect and accommodate that change. The latest of these is the Long Tail economy (r)evolution with it ability to deliver niche (if not personalized) products to niche markets. Pesonalized medicines - regenerative medicine and cell therapies in particular – are the therapeutic industry’s answer for the demand for personalized products. For a host of reasons, however, the economic model is not yet one which makes for profitable delivery of such products to niche markets.

Nonetheless, while questions about the viability of the business and economic models for these paradigm-shifting therapies are reasonable, the next 5 years will show that today’s questions about the business models for cell therapy were rooted in limited imagination about the potential for technological and commercial innovation as well as outdated concepts of the therapeutics industry and its economies.


[i] Anderson C: The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. Hyperion (2006).

[ii] Friedman TL: The World is Flat. A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2005).

1 comment:

Lee Buckler said...

Malcolm Gladwell recently had a great article in the New Yorker calling out the errors (or perhaps, limitations) in Chris Anderson's argument that the new business model for everything should be "free".

It's a great article quite aside from its relevance to this post but there is one section where he critiques Anderson's premise that “The more products are made of ideas, rather than stuff, the faster they can get cheap.” Anderson, of course, extends the applicability of this premise beyond digital products even to the pharmaceutical industry saying "Genetic engineering means that drug development is poised to follow the same learning curve of the digital world, to “accelerate in performance while it drops in price.”"

Gladwell argues that the pharmaceutical industry's Long Tail move to meeting unmet needs in niche markets actually has the opposite effect on price.

"In the pharmaceutical world, what’s more, companies have chosen to use the potential of new technology to do something very different from their counterparts in Silicon Valley. They’ve been trying to find a way to serve smaller and smaller markets—to create medicines tailored to very specific subpopulations and strains of diseases—and smaller markets often mean higher prices. The biotechnology company Genzyme spent five hundred million dollars developing the drug Myozyme, which is intended for a condition, Pompe disease, that afflicts fewer than ten thousand people worldwide. That’s the quintessential modern drug: a high-tech, targeted remedy that took a very long and costly path to market. Myozyme is priced at three hundred thousand dollars a year. Genzyme isn’t a mining company: its real assets are intellectual property—information, not stuff. But, in this case, information does not want to be free. It wants to be really, really expensive."