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Pharma Explores Nonhuman Medical Frontiers

As we make progress against human disease, and as the approval process for new treatments lengthens while the legal and economic risks of failure grow, it makes perfect sense that pharmaceutical companies will turn their attention elsewhere.

The logical new target: plant and animal diseases.

Working on treatments for these maladies may not do as much to improve human health, but the return on economic investment can be higher, while the risks will often be lower. And ultimately, society also benefits from controlling exotic pests and invasive species, and by countering diseases that wither crops or destroy farms.

A recent example comes from Bayer AG, which announced a three-year research agreement with the Citrus Research and Development Foundation to fight citrus greening disease, The Wall Street Journal reported. The German pharmaceutical giant and the Florida-based nonprofit will team up to develop treatments for the currently incurable infection that is causing deep concern among the state’s citrus growers. The foundation assembled funding; Bayer brings a team of researchers and its massive library of chemicals and lab resources, with the understanding that it will also further develop and commercialize any promising treatments.

No one wants Florida to lose its $8.6 billion citrus industry to an unstoppable bacteria. Obviously not the 45,000 Floridians who work in that industry; not major companies like Coca-Cola that rely on Florida citrus juices in many of their products; and not Bayer, who stands to make a profit well beyond Florida’s borders if the collaboration yields an effective cure. Besides Florida, the disease has been reported in California and Texas in the U.S., and in groves across Asia, Africa and in parts of South and Central America – a very eager potential global market. Growers have already proved willing to investigate treatments ranging from RNA interference to unleashing wasps to attack the insects that spread the disease.

It will be interesting to see whether the Luddite crowd that opposes genetically modified organisms out of hand fights against any breakthroughs achieved via Bayer’s technology. Experience strongly hints that they will. But given the size, influence and track record of pharmaceutical companies, maybe they will at least serve as a counterweight to such objections. Most laypeople, I suspect, don’t think of these companies as the chemical industry that, in many respects, they are. In the end, what I think will turn back the GMO crowd is the hypocrisy that will be revealed when its members line up to benefit from new medical treatments for humans that these companies achieve through the same genetic engineering that they revile in “frankenfoods.”

Pharmaceutical companies certainly will not give up on human medicines as they investigate plant and animal treatments. But you need only look at the fallout in the court of public opinion from increases in the price of EpiPens or the array of reasons potential jurors gave for not being fair and impartial in the trial of former Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli (leading off with “I’m aware of the defendant and I hate him,”) to see why drug makers may want to find some less fraught research lines too.

In addition to Bayer’s partnership with Florida citrus growers, other big pharmaceutical companies are looking to animal health. In recent years, Eli Lilly acquired Novartis’ animal health business to expand its existing Elanco unit, and Merck acquired a 93 percent stake in Vallee S.A., an animal health product company based in Brazil. Zoetis, an animal health company spun off from Pfizer, went public in 2013 and achieved the largest initial public offering from a U.S. company since Facebook. With the rise in pet ownership and the increasing demand for meat and dairy food products, many analysts predict that the animal health sector will continue to grow. Animal drugs also cost less to develop than human drugs; about $50 to 100 million compared with more than $1 billion, according to Fabian Kausche, global head of research and development at Merial, the animal health division of Sanofi.

While fighting plant diseases is not yet so widespread for pharmaceutical giants, Bayer’s announcement demonstrates that it is a logical next step. Huge chemical libraries and massive research facilities are just as valuable when tackling problems like citrus greening as when investigating better cancer treatments. If a company name already associated with health can soften some of the illogical opposition to genetic modification of crops down the line, it will be an unexpected bonus.

In the meantime, maybe we’ll make some headway against the citrus greening that is destroying Florida’s citrus industry and threatening that industry in much bigger producers, like Brazil. That won’t necessarily require any genetic engineering at all. It will just require the application of talent, time and capital, and major pharmaceutical companies have plenty of all three.

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