November 01, 2012

Elias Zerhouni: Generic drugs are good for patients - and for society

Pushpa Narayan Oct 31, 2012, 12.00AM IST


(The future of the pharmaceutical…)

Winner of France's Legion d'honneur, former US National Institutes of Health director and previously medical consultant to the White House, Elias Zerhouni now heads research and development at French pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis. Speaking with Pushpa Narayan, Zerhouni discussed how the future of the pharmaceutical industry could include creating region-specific drugs, how generic medication is an essential social good - and why a vaccine against dengue hasn't fully clicked yet:

Most drugs available today are based on the needs of people living in the West. Many medical practitioners find some of these don't suit Asians. Is it time the pharmaceutical industry began developing region-specific drugs?

The future of the pharmaceutical industry does lie in providing personalised medicine and region-specific solutions. Disease profiles are different for different regions. It is no more a one-size-fits-all approach. For instance, we don't know why there is very high hypertension and cholesterol associated with diabetes in Indians. We're studying 16,000 patients in India now just in order to learn how differently the disease and its complications manifest themselves in this region. Even within regions, there could be notable differences and we should certainly study these in great detail.

Will such extensive rese-arch going towards drug deve-lopment make treatments more expensive?

Having served as the director of America's National Institutes of Health for years, i am fully aware of the need to make treatment accessible and affordable. We can't ignore the factor of purchasing power. Research should provide solutions that people can afford over time. As an example, we know there is considerable scope for anti-diabetes drugs to be sold in India. Therefore, non-disposable pens are being developed which are likely to bring down the costs of insulin.

Today, in the pharmaceutical world, if you aren't sensitive to price, competition will do it for you.

Amidst such specialisation, do generic drugs lower profits for pharmaceutical companies - and impact research?

No. Generic drugs are good, not just for patients but for society. There are patent laws that do give you enough time to recover money. Generic drugs did not come out of the blue. They came from real innovative research. Generic drugs make treatment affordable to everyone. Having generic drugs is the right thing to do.

Many are very concerned about dengue fever in India - could you please tell us about the dengue vaccine being developed and mixed reports of its efficacy during research?

Well, we certainly recognised dengue as one of the most dangerous emerging diseases currently. We started research on dengue fever 10 years ago. We wanted to develop a vaccine that would work against all four serotypes of dengue. We thought it would be absolutely accurate and manage all four serotypes. But the results of our trials conducted in Thailand showed it did not work against one of the serotypes. We haven't studied why in full detail as yet. But we know this is an important discovery. We are currently continuing our dengue vaccine study amongst 40,000 people. We have a lot more to learn - but this vaccine's research also holds a lot of hope.


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