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Storytelling In The News: #126

The story of Eli Lilly: Learning from failure

April 21, 2004

Some of the notable advances and innovations in business and science have come from failure:

* Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin when mold started growing in a Petri dish in his untidy laboratory.

* Post-it Notes got their start in 1968 when a 3M researcher was aiming to improve adhesive tape and failed. Instead, he got was a semi sticky adhesive, which turned out to be what another another 3M scientist needed to keep his bookmarks from falling out the hymnal in his church choir.

* Another 3M scientist came up with Scotchgard, which helps prevent dirt from staining fabric, what she she set out to create was something quite different - a synthetic rubber to be used in airplane fuel lines. One day some of the new substance spilled on her assistant's canvas shoe, and they couldn't get it off. As the tennis shoe grew older, it got dingy--everywhere except where the substance had spilled. .

Learning from failure at Eli Lilly & Co

Drug companies see the importance of tolerating -- and learning from -- failure, a valuable strategy since about 90% of experimental drugs in the industry fail. Pfizer Inc. originally developed the blockbuster impotence drug Viagra to treat angina, or severe heart pain

Now the pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly & Co, is singing the praises of consistently learning from failure, in an interesting article by Thomas Burton in the Wall Street Journal. According to Burton, Lilly has long had a culture that looks at failure as an inevitable part of discovery and encourages scientists to take risks. If a new drug doesn't work out for its intended use, Lilly scientists are taught to look for new uses for a drug. In the early 1990s, W. Leigh Thompson, Lilly's chief scientific officer, initiated "failure parties" to commemorate excellent scientific work, done efficiently, that nevertheless resulted in failure.

According to Burton, Lilly has taken this approach to unusual lengths. It assigns someone -- often a team of doctors and scientists -- to retrospectively analyze every compound that has failed at any point in human clinical trials. Blair Sheppard, a management professor at Duke University who's done consulting work for Lilly and other pharmaceutical companies, says that Lilly developed "a formalized and thoughtful process in which it reviewed failures more honestly, more deeply and started the process sooner than anyone else."

* Evista, now a $1 billion-a-year drug for osteoporosis, was a failed contraceptive.

* Strattera, a hot-selling drug for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, bombed out as an antidepressant.

* A promising cardiovascular drug called a PPAR-alpha-agonist, which lowers fat levels in the blood, arose from a failed asthma project.

* The antidepressant Cymbalta, for which Wall Street has high hopes, failed in its original trials until a Lilly scientist upped the dosage.

* Eli Lilly & Co. had high hopes for an experimental chemotherapy drug called Alimta. But after three patients taking Alimta died suddenly in 1999, Lilly halted trials of the drug. It eventually emerged that patients with the most severe side effects were those with high homocysteine -- and low folic acid -- in their blood. The researchers decided on a disarmingly simple solution: Give all patients folic acid pills in addition to their dose of Alimta. "When I first heard about it, I thought it was crazy," says Bruce A. Chabner, clinical director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center.

Although Lilly's share price has suffered due to the expiry of the patent for Prozac, approval problems with the FDA, and competition from other drug companies, Eli Lilly & Co's track record is interesting, in an industry where getting two new drugs approved by the FDA is considered a banner year. Lilly already has six approved so far in 2003 and 2004 combined and hopes to get another two approved by year-end. And it has another 11 promising drugs in the middle- to late-stage pipeline.

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