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How Drug Development Cycles May Be ‘Getting Smaller and Smaller’

November 2, 2016, 4:10 AM UTC

Only about 5% or 6% of pharmaceutical drugs that get past the discovery stage ever make it to patients, but that rate may be changing.

“The life cycle of an experiment is getting smaller and smaller,” said Mass Innovation Labs CEO Amrit Chaudhuri on Tuesday at Fortune‘s Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego, Calif.

Pre-clinical trials used to take as long as 24 months. But now some can be completed in as little as two or three months, added Chaudhuri.

The rise of new technologies, such as 3D printing and CRISPR, a new gene-editing technology, is also contributing to the shortening of these drug development cycles, said Dr. Lesley Stolz of Johnson & Johnson’s JLABS.

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“Being able to get 3D-printed tissue to actually test for side effects … can actually decrease the time that it takes to get into patients and could really increase the success rates,” Stolz explained.

But what about that 5% success rate—can that be improved as well?

Stolz says yes. Along with helping speed up the earlier stages of testing, technology can also help researchers weed out treatments, drugs, and approaches that aren’t working sooner, and steer their research in a better direction. This way, more potentially successful drugs can make it to clinical trials and actual testing on patients.

But Jonathan Usuka of McKinsey’s pharmaceutical analytics venture cautioned that the industry shouldn’t continue to always think of drug research and discovery as a means to approval by the U.S. FDA. Instead, he says, there’s much more that companies can continue to learn once a drug is being used by patients, including better ways to help and treat those people.

“We spend hundreds of million of dollars on them and then we throw them into the real world, and don’t pay much attention to efficacy or safety unless we have to,” he said of drugs that get final regulatory approval. With new technologies and approaches to research, companies can extend that process beyond that point, he argued.

The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Dr. Lesley Stolz’s name.