Science bows to nature – but how deeply? That depends on the scientists

Science has to bow to the complexity of nature, but this is also a blessing. The more scientists cooperate among themselves, the better the understanding we can gain of nature and biology. In the process, we may also achieve something great.

Maintaining a profitable level of research and product development is one of the burning issues in the pharmaceutical industry at the moment. Choices related to finding the right combinations of target molecules, modes of action, diseases and patients, as well as a sufficient level of safety and commercial potential, have brought R&D organisations around the world to their knees.

Investment in research and product development has increased globally, but new medicines are not being introduced at a corresponding pace. Statutory requirements and the cost of clinical tests have increased, and there is a reluctance to take risks. In addition, the need and desire to find new treatments or improve existing ones for increasingly complex diseases that are more difficult to treat are making pharmaceutical development more complicated. There are no maps for unknown territory, meaning that errors are probable, as is losing the way.

Pharmaceutical development from the initial idea to a finished product takes 15–20 years, so the cost is immense. According to a popular hypothesis, for each successful drug molecule, there are ten candidate molecules that had to be discarded for various reasons. However, having a larger number of candidate molecules does not automatically mean a larger number of new drugs on pharmacy shelves. Instead, it is believed today that a better understanding of biology and disease mechanisms is the only way towards new, effective medical treatments.


Patients benefit from cooperation between universities and the pharmaceutical industry

Nature and biology are so complex that not even pharmaceutical giants, with their extensive resources, are able to find answers to all the open questions concerning pharmaceutical development from preliminary ideas to finished products. For this reason, cooperation between universities and the pharmaceutical industry has become a megatrend, enabling pharmaceutical companies to make use of the high-quality basic research carried out at universities. The pharmaceutical industry is turning ideas into final products for the benefit of patients. Cooperation is more likely to produce results that help patients.

“Finnish universities carry out high-quality basic research, while Orion conducts high-quality research and product development related to the therapy areas of oncology, central nervous system disorders, respiratory diseases, neuropathic pain and veterinary pharmaceuticals. We need the universities’ expertise in biology and their ability to innovate in the early stages of basic research, as our core expertise lies more in applied research. We develop medicines for patients in a more straightforward manner, which is something that the universities don’t have the resources to do. It’s difficult to think of anything more remarkable than being able to develop a Finnish innovation and a new drug for a unmet need,” says Taru Blom, VP, Development at Orion Pharma.


Molecules are scrutinised for safety and effectiveness

By far the most common reason for discarding candidate molecules during clinical testing is the fact that they are simply not working. A molecule may prove challenging in terms of synthetisation, stability, solubility or metabolisation, among other aspects, or an erroneous interpretation may have been made with regard to the selection of the drug molecule or target protein, or during the early stages of research, or during the preclinical or clinical phase, or a wrong development path may have been chosen at some point. We have been forced to simplify biology too much, and sometimes nature is so complex that the models and assumptions we have chosen actually lead us astray.

“Unfortunately, this sometimes happens in research. However, as researchers, we must be able to learn continuously, even from our failures, and use the information we gain as a basis for new studies. Our belief in pharmaceutical research may falter occasionally, but we never lose faith in the future and scientific development,” says Carina Stenfors, Principal Research Scientist at Orion Pharma, who specialises in central nervous system research.

Selecting the biological target is the most difficult part of the development process, and universities have stronger expertise in and are in a better position to study basic disease mechanisms than Orion.

“When a promising target protein is eventually found, along with a promising drug molecule, and various modelling processes and cell models have produced good results in in vitro tests, the in vivo tests may still fail. The translation effects from test tubes to people are difficult to predict, but we are getting better in that respect as well. The immense progress in technology and science enables us to tackle more and more difficult challenges. Today, we have better chances of success, even in projects that were previously regarded as hopeless,” says Mervi Vasänge, manager of the in vitro laboratory.

Orion has excellent conditions, resources and equipment for studying molecules, but there are even better and smarter ways to take many of the steps along the pharmaceutical development path. For this reason, we are also looking for new technologies at all stages of the research path.


Finnish science for Finns

All scientists are sometimes forced to rely on simplifications and best guesses, but we are wiser and stronger together.

“Orion has already entered into international cooperation agreements with universities. For example, our agreement with the DZNE (Deutsches Zentrum für Neurodegenerative Erkrankungen) research institute in Germany allows us to choose, from among target proteins developed and suggested by the institute, a target that matches our expertise and to begin pharmaceutical development with it. This is a win-win arrangement. We are a flexible partner, and each agreement is negotiated on a case-by-case basis, considering the quality and feasibility of the idea, and our partner’s resources. Inspired by our cooperation with the DZNE, we wish to enter into similar agreements in Finland,” says Principal Research Scientist Ullamari Pesonen.

New innovations may well emerge when Finnish universities and the Finnish pharmaceutical industry join forces in an effort to better understand nature. For this reason, we are inviting all researchers to contribute to our pool of science for the benefit of patients. We have introduced a contest, Oriontation – 100 Ideas for Orion, to seek ideas in all areas of pharmaceutical development. Your idea matters! A single idea may not make a huge difference in terms of understanding nature, but it may be crucial for a patient. Let’s create a new Finnish innovation – together!


Text: Anni Turpeinen