How Long, Oh Lord, How Long?

by: Derek Lowe

Here we have the prototypical slow summer day. So I'm going to use this one to throw a question out to the readership: those of you in preclinical drug discovery, what's the longest you've personally worked on a project that eventually managed to deliver a clinical candidate? On the not-so-inspiring side, what's the longest you've ever worked on one without it ever delivering even that? Feel free to bend these categories a bit, as needed. Many times you'll come onto a long-running project at some later point in its development without having experienced the whole story, so if you want to adduce some particularly long and winding program that you weren't there to start off with, don't hesitate. There are also cases where one program sort of shape-shifts into another as it moves along, making it harder to measure just how long things have been running.

And those endpoints might need a bit of adjusting as well. I spent over five years on an Alzheimer's project early in my career, and that's still the longest-running one that I've ever experienced. But I'm not sure which category to put it in. I think it did eventually go into the clinic (I'd left by that time), but from what I heard, it seems to have slid right out again almost immediately, so it's hard to classify it as a success. That one also had over 4,000 analogs made by the time I left the project, which I think is also a record in my personal experience [I thought about that while writing yesterday's post about Gilead's (NASDAQ:GILD) capsid inhibitors, which also had such a number - their molecules were quite a bit harder to synthesize, though].

The whole topic of how long projects run has come up here before. It's a complicated one, because there have been many great successes that took a long time to gestate, but (buried in the archives) there have been plenty of time sinks that ran for similar lengths and never got anywhere in the end. Different managers have different approaches to this problem, and companies themselves (or the various parts) tend to develop their own cultural habits around the issue, too. My feeling is that upper-level managers who were burned earlier in their careers by some project that wandered on forever and never delivered are usually the ones who are hard-core about deadlines, because they've decided that they're never going to go through that again. The danger is that they overcompensate and try to run everything on too tight a schedule, and since there really are projects that turn out to need a lot of time, you can fail quickly so often that it's all you ever do. But, as usual, you can screw up in the other direction, too: if you let every project spin out for as long as it can, you'll never deliver anything, either (and drug discovery is far from the only activity where that holds true). One size does not fit all, and never has.