The Challenge of Understanding Biotech: Sifting Through the Fog and Jargon


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Best selling in the U.S., or in the world? The most prescriptions written? Used by the greatest number of patients? Highest dollar sales? Total number of pills consumed? Do biologics count as a “drug,” or are those scored separately as a “best selling biologic”? Sadly, phrases such as these are seldom defined in a way that you can tell what the author truly meant to say.

I often come across numbers that are so unbelievable that they throw a spanner wrench into my mental gears. These figures may crop up in discussions of topics I am unfamiliar with, but just as often they show up in a commentary that covers my particular areas of expertise. My first response is to look for a footnote, something to tell me where this number came from. The footnote, if you can find one, is often rather vague, attributing the statistic to something like the Government Accountability Office, the Brookings Institution, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, Public Citizen, or the National Academy of Sciences. I must confess that I (regretfully) quote these numbers from time to time, since they are often the only ones you can find available on a particular topic.

Having identified the source of these numbers, I often attempt at least a shallow dive into the quoted material to find out how the number was obtained. These efforts are nearly always unsuccessful in that the exact meaning of the number, or the methodology used to derive it, are simply unavailable. One example: a number was cited in a Chicago Tribune article about the number of biotech companies that had declared bankruptcy that did not jibe with other numbers I had seen published. Numerous phone calls and emails later, I was told that the number provided by an industry organization had been misquoted by the reporter who authored the piece and was, therefore, untrue. I never saw a correction published. To put it bluntly, if I can’t understand or confirm a phrase or number, I have a difficult time believing it is true.

Also irritating is reading some number or graph that’s been extracted from a white paper, deciding you would like more info, and then finding out that your only available option is to purchase the entire article for a mere $7,695 from Expensive Reports R Us. Equally vexing: reports produced by financial firms for the exclusive use of their clients, which are therefore not available to the general public. Earlier this year Morgan Stanley published a recommendation that Big Pharma companies largely abandon their internal research programs and acquire their new drugs primarily via acquisitions. Sounds fascinating (and to my mind, unsustainable), and I would love to see their analysis, but … Next Page »

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Stewart Lyman is Owner and Manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC in Seattle. He provides strategic advice to clients on their research programs, collaboration management issues, as well as preclinical data reviews. Follow @

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7 responses to “The Challenge of Understanding Biotech: Sifting Through the Fog and Jargon”

  1. natalie says:


  2. Hilarious and unfortunately all too true. I have had similar thoughts as yours Stuart but you have done a great job of getting it down on “virtual” paper for all to enjoy.

  3. JC says:

    I’m amazed by the continuous “group think” inside the industry and companies vying for approval themselves. They are so sure they will be approved they bet the farm, build out expensive facilities and hire loads of people who all too soon will be laid off.

    Always makes me wonder what they know that no one else does, but alas the FDA continuously surprises us with delays or outright dis-approvals (Amylin the most recent notable).

    With all of the sophistication, investment and science of our modern era, I find the process, expectations and execution of getting products approved still archaic.

  4. Peter says:

    Nice job! I always try to read the Numbers Guy, Carl Bialik, in the Wall Street Journal. As a mathmetician he tries to rationalize some of the numbers that frequently are quoted. For instance, he recently wrote about and largely debunked the oft-cited “statistic” that 10% of the drugs sold are counterfeit: We need more fact checkers, but as you point out, it is not easy to trace down the origins of many of these numbers.

    The best example of “group think” is what happens in big pharma when senior management changes its philosophy on the “right” way to discover and develop drugs. They often end up criticizing their own ideas of a few years earlier and then expect the entire organization to adopt their “new” ideas. Of course anyone who disagrees is criticized for not being a “team” player and is usually swept out in the next round of layoffs.

  5. John says:

    Great stuff, well presented. But it isn’t only the life science industry that plays fast and loose with facts and language. Yesterday I read of a highly successful aid program that distributed $200M to 25M people. That $8 per person was life-changing aid.

    Is part of our “evolving” journalism industry dropping its fact checking role?

  6. Anthony Rodriguez says:

    In every sector from academia to politics, people are irresponsible with numbers. The lack of transparency with the information that is pushed in today’s web-based society is sad. Like Stewart, I will all too often stop my due diligence as soon as the source asks for a credit card number. Its just easier and cheaper to take these statements at face value. I applaud journals like PLoS who allow for researchers to post their RAW data online with their article free to access for anyone. Will we ever see something like this become a standard across all sectors? I hope so, but I am not holding my breath.