In spite of criticism, Lilly saves lives

March 30, 2009
Eli Lilly and Co. is often in the Indianapolis and national news. Recent business articles have discussed in detail Lilly's challenges and business plans. One article reviewed Lilly's focus on biotech, its restructuring, its pipeline of drugs, and the constant assault on it by generic competition.

I'm writing this column to give another side of Lilly: the human-impact side. You see, my wife, Becky, is alive today because of Lilly and its trial drug Enzastaurin, a great surgeon, and a terrific team of local doctors.

It was on Aug. 20, 2006, that my family's lives were turned upside down. It was a Sunday evening. Becky tried to talk to me, but she could not speak. Her words were garbled. Two hours later, she was having violent seizures in the emergency room of Community Hospital. After extensive tests, the neurosurgeon delivered the news: Becky likely had a grade-four brain tumor (glioblastoma) and surgery would be extremely difficult. If surgery confirmed this diagnosis, she would have 12-14 months to live.

Our team of doctors was headed by longtime family friend Dr. Tim Kelly and local oncologist Dr. Jennifer Morgan. Together, they helped us research the leading surgeons and hospitals that specialize in brain tumors. We were told the most important strategy was to find a hospital that was involved in a clinical trial for this rare form of cancer.

We decided to go to the University of California-San Francisco, where a leading surgeon, Dr. Mitch Berger, and a new clinical trial using Enzastaurin (made by Lilly) was available. Becky had a nine-hour surgery in San Francisco, followed by radiation and chemotherapy. She continues on chemotherapy today. This month, we are celebrating two years and four months without a reoccurence of cancer.

Becky is in a phase-one trial using Enzastaurin. With the positive results thus far, researchers have started phase two with a much larger group. She continues the chemotherapy that we receive on our now-quarterly visits to UCSF. Because Enzastaurin is a trial drug, it is offered at no cost.

The current business model for drug companies is under constant assault. Generic companies that have nothing invested in the costs of developing successful drugs attack the patents. The political environment is also unfriendly to drug companies; in fact, many in Washington would say big pharma is responsible for the increase in health care costs.

But it takes 10 to 15 years to develop a medicine from its early stages to U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. Only one out of 5,000 "lead molecules" (drugs that have yet to be tested in humans) ever becomes a product for sale. And each one costs about $1 billion to launch.

Most new drugs come from the United States, a trend that is expected to continue. Drug companies have the leading role in the discovery and development of drugs that become life-saving and life-enhancing.

All this good is being achieved right here in our hometown. We should praise Lilly and other drug companies that foster innovation and medicines that change our lives and those of all who will follow.


Schenck is vice president of the Schenck Group/ Merrill Lynch.
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