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Healthy Competition? Target Diversity in Drug Development

The percentage of targets with 1 to 5 or more drug development projects. Image credit: Nature Reviews Drug Discovery 12, 575 – 576 (2013) doi:10.1038/nrd4089

Targeted based drug discovery has been a mainstay of pharmaceutical pipelines for the last 20 years. Identifying and validating novel drug development targets remains one of the major hurdles in drug development. As potential therapeutic leads are discovered and pursued, how often are companies competing over the same targets? Does target overlap advance target validation and speed up drug development? Or is pursuit of single targets essential to prevent big losses if the target does not show continual progress during development? A recent analysis of the Pharmaprojects database published in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery addressed just this question – how diverse are drug development pipelines?

The authors surveyed the diversity found in proven and novel drug targets that are currently part of active pre-clinical and clinical projects. When they looked at all drug targets, they found that approximately half of the targets were being pursued by more than one company. Interestingly, reciprocal trends emerged when proven and novel targets were separated and analyzed. For proven targets, 64% were in the drug development pipelines of five or more companies. While for novel targets, 54% of targets were under development by only one company. This demonstrated that target diversity was higher in pre-clinical projects and as targets were validated the pipeline is honed to the most promising leads.

Similarly, when target development was correlated with phases of drug development, pre-clinical studies showed the highest diversity and the least competition with over 70% of targets under development by only one company. However, phase III clinical trials showed the most competition with about a third of the targets under development by five or more companies. Therefore, as drug development pipelines mature, target competition increases.

This suggests a natural progression in a drug development pipeline with early discovery investigating and pursuing a diverse range of targets. As targets develop and show greater promise, they should be pursued more heavily and competition increases.

To get an overall picture of competition and how it might be distributed throughout a development pipeline, the variability of competition in the pipelines of the ten largest pharmaceutical companies was examined. Not surprisingly, the largest number of compounds under development was found in the highest competition category with five or more companies developing those targets.

This study presents a tantalizing peek into target diversity of the drug development landscape. Hopefully, the future will bring more investigation into competition and diversity in target validation and drug development.