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Economists brand Lilly drug R&D cost quiz "misinformation"

By Gareth MacDonald+

26-Jun-2014
Last updated on 01-Jul-2014 at 10:50 GMT

Economists criticise Lillypad game
Economists criticise Lillypad game

An online quiz about drug R&D has been criticised by economists who say its developer - Eli Lilly - is misinforming the public about the cost and time it takes to develop new medicines.

The “Destination Discovery” game – online here – quizzes players on subjects ranging from the time it takes to move a candidate into trials and research costs through to the percentage of drugs that are approved and how long it takes to recoup R&D investment.

Lilly’s rationale for developing the game – according to an associated blog post – is to “share our passion for modern medical discovery process” and to let players experience the challenges involved in “bringing a new medicine from molecule to medicine cabinet.”

But economists we contacted disagree and instead suggest that Eli Lilly is at best misinforming about the development process and at worst spinning in the drug industry’s favour.

Mythology

Donald Light, a long-time critic of industry claims about drug research costs , told us “Eli Lilly has put out a children's game that teaches children all the "right answers" to how long, risky, and costly drug development is, and how many millions of jobs are supported by the pharmaceutical industry. 

These "right answers" make up the mythology of the industry, like the heroic tales of a tribe about its great risks and ventures, with few verifiable facts to back them up. These right, heroic answers are why Lilly and other companies say they must charge such high prices that raise our premiums.”

Nowhere will children and their parents be told that over 90 percent of newly approved drugs are judged by independent teams of physicians and pharmacists to offer few or no clinical advantages over existing drugs that they developed in earlier years. Nor will people be told that the risk of serious adverse reactions from new drugs is 1 in 5 -- a very high risk.”

To be fair to Lilly the webpage does make clear that the game is intended for over 18s only, which is presumably why "Destination Discovery" uses the bold, primary colours and cartoonish graphics that adults everywhere love.

R&D not linked to cost

Joel Lexchin from Canada's York University - who co-authored this paper  on the "myths" of drug development with Light in 2012 - was similarly critical of the Lilly game.

He told us that: “All of the correct answers are the ones that are most favourable to the drug industry. 

This is like a lot of propaganda that’s produced - some truths but no context to the questions or the answers and many of the “truths” rely on a very selective reading of the material.”

He also questioned the game's efforts to link R&D expenditure with drug cost.

R&D cost has nothing to do with the price of a drug, companies charge what they think that payers will pay and the more serious the illness, the more desperate the patient and the more the drug will cost.”

Low grade PR exercise

Bernard Munos, a former Lilly exec who has cast doubt on claims about falling R&D productivity, also criticised the game on the basis that its questions about the percentage of drug approvals and the impact of health technology assessments have on timelines were ambiguous.

I did not check all the questions, but this is the kind of cute PR exercise that serves no purpose, except perhaps than to misinform. It is ill-conceived and poorly designed, and it is really a shame that Lilly feels it needs that sort of low-grade PR to burnish its image.

Munos added that: “It [the game] does not reflect properly on the many capable scientists in its [Lilly's] ranks, who work very hard to restore the performance of a company led astray by poor leadership.”

Eli Lilly did not respond to a request for comment.

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