August 19, 2013 | The Editors

Risks—and rewards—of drug development

Drug development: it's not for the faint of heart. Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern.
Drug development: it’s not for the faint of heart. Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern.

Dr. Hing Sham joined PATH recently as head of research and preclinical development for our Drug Development program. Hing comes to us with more than 30 years’ experience in the private pharmaceutical industry, where he led major projects addressing HIV, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. He spoke with communications officer Elena Pantjushenko about the risks of drug development and the intricacies involved in bringing a drug to market. You can see the entire interview on the Drug Development program’s blog.

Elena: Can you explain drug development in just a few words?

Hing: In a few words, drug development is not for the faint of heart! What I mean by that is drug development is one of the most complicated and high-risk businesses in the world.

Portrait of Dr. Hing Sham.
Dr. Hing Sham. Photo: PATH.

When you think about what we’re trying to do, which is basically to correct a physiological process so it functions the same way it would in a healthy individual, it’s very complex and riskier even than going to the casino. In drug development, from choosing the right target to successfully completing multiple phases of clinical trials to clearing regulatory hurdles, there are many things that can go wrong. Under the best circumstances, your success rate is around 20 percent. It’s definitely a worthwhile endeavor, but each new hurdle brings with it a new set of anxieties.

What is the most exciting part of drug discovery?

For me, the most exciting moment is when the different puzzle pieces come together to form a clear profile of a potentially successful drug candidate. Before this can happen, you have to have already chosen the correct target to treat within the human body and the right compound from thousands of possibilities to target that mechanism for the desired effect. In addition, you have to determine that the compound has gone through the right testing to ensure that it’s in the best position to clear clinical trials and other safety hurdles. When all of that begins to align for the first time, it’s very exciting.

What do you find most fulfilling about your work?

After 30 years in the private pharmaceutical industry, I have an immense appreciation for what the private sector does in devoting resources to research for lifesaving therapies. Now with PATH, I feel I have the unique opportunity to bridge the best of the private and nonprofit sectors to tackle a tremendous need for efficacious drugs for diseases unique to poor countries. It’s fulfilling to know that our work is bringing the best science to bear on some of the world’s most challenging health issues.

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