The Boardroom Series: Interview with CSO Mark McHale, Part 2 Drug Development

In Part 2 of this Boardroom Series interview, Mark McHale, CSO of ASLAN Pharmaceuticals, located in Singapore, shares his insights on the biggest challenges in drug development right now and the best CROs in the industry to work with.

Drug Development

Pharma IQ: Where do you see the biggest challenges in drug development right now? 

Mark McHale: The patent cliffs that are happening between 2010 and 2015 are a huge issue for the Pharma industry. And the blight of these multi-billion dollar drugs that are fantastic when you’ve got them, but when you lose them; that’s scary and there’s nothing to replace it.

Pharma has tried the numbers game for the last 20 years and done everything internally. I think pharma could do that because it was very profitable and it did have blockbusters that had quite a lot of patent life left, 20 years or so. Now they’re all coming to the end of their lives and pharma companies have realised that the numbers game hasn’t worked because as they’ve become huge, bureaucracy’s become enormous and the correct decisions can’t be made at the right time.

There’s the concept of the frozen middle in pharma, so the CEO can say something but it never gets through to changes at the bottom because there’s a middle management layer that don’t quite get the message. It’s very common and I’ve seen this with the pharma companies we talk to; sometimes they want to work with ASLAN because they feel that their organisations couldn’t do what we do as quickly, simply because of bureaucracy.

The big pharma companies operate as huge, public businesses that have to have an operating system, but it does have a knock-on effect. Perhaps pharma could look, as it moves forward, into streamlining its layers more rather than chopping limbs off, as it seems to be doing.

I do worry that there’s a wealth of good compounds out there at the moment because there are really strong discovery organisations but as they’re being chopped, I don’t think the guys at the top realise that there will be a gap. So I don’t know when that will be, five / six years but there’ll be a point at which compounds against novel targets start drying up unless there’s investment made..

I think the model of contracting out is very good. If you’re a small organisation like Aslan, you can do it. I’m not convinced yet that pharma can do that efficiently because you do have to be on it 24/7 and you have to be using people who manage those CRO organisations, if you contract everything  out, with no internal expertise, who knows whether the CRO data is any good. But as you chop the organisation and you’ve had less internal research, you kind of lose that.


Pharma IQ: So what’s bright about the future for pharma?
Mark McHale: The Pharmaceutical industry is having the renaissance that oil companies had 20 years ago. They’ve gone from end-to-end control of everything to contracting things out and they’ve got very efficient at it, and pharma will get better at it too.
I know it’s really hard at the moment because so many people are being laid off but pharma will restructure. Some will maybe die or be bought up or broken up but the ones that survive will be far more efficient and far stronger.
Pharma IQ: Who do you think are the current stars in the industry?
Mark McHale: I’ve always got a lot of admiration for GSK, Novartis, Bristol Meyers and Almirall. Looking at Almirall for example, you can see quality scientists who are careful about what they do. They control their research very carefully and efficiently. You can see that its an agile pharma, you can feel that when you are there.
I’ve always thought of GSK as a survivor. They’re good at what they do and will continue to be good at what they do and they are trying to evolve. They’ve set up a novel research model with little biotech-like organisations internally, which have around 40 people and are self-funded with a set period of time to deliver
I’ve also always thought Novartis has this really impressive focus on proof of concept. So many companies are focused on getting the right compounds moving in development. Novartis is about the proof of concept and you feel that when you talk to them, they’re good at what they do and they’re right; that’s where you have to focus. It’s about getting something that works in patients.
I should also include Roche, because I think with the Genentech portfolio, they’re going to do well for a long time and Roche are a very good, strong company as well so that combination, I think, is very impressive. Companies that have a good generics base as well will probably do quite well.
Pharma IQ: You mentioned Novartis there. Their CEO, Joseph Jimenez, recently said that the big pharma business model has to be updated. What do you think big pharma can learn from organisations like Aslan?
Mark McHale: If you take the example of Bristol Myers Squibb, they decided that they want to focus in Asia. It’s called their Oyster strategy, because some oysters produce pearls and so putting compounds they love, not compounds they want to get rid of, into small companies and seeding them and then seeing which ones produce a pearl, I think, is quite interesting.
What we do could be done in big pharma, we just have fewer layers, we do it faster, we do it efficiently, we do it by contracting out as well, we wouldn’t want to use a CRO that our partner is uncomfortable with.. But there are cases where we’ve brought CROs forward, said we really like these guys, we’ve done an audit, we think they’re really cool. And pharma has said, that’s really good, can we have that information? So we share and who’s got the best CRO information gets enriched between the two of us.
Pharma IQ: Who do you see as some of the best CROs to work with in the industry from your own experience?  
Mark McHale: Good communication is so important. I used to hate it when people said it internally in pharma because if you can’t pick up the phone and talk to somebody you shouldn’t be in the job. But that gets really important when I’m in Singapore and somebody’s in China, so it’s about having that really close link and speaking the same scientific language.
Some of the CROs understand that you’re a biotech and operate differently to big pharma. I’ve been in some meetings and there are more people in the meeting from the CRO than are in Aslan. I just need to deal with one person who understands what we’re doing and will implement what we want and also tell us when we’re getting something wrong.