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The Lack of CNS Candidates: The Pharma Industry’s Migraine

Date: 06 September 2016

The conventional economic wisdom is that supply grows to meet demand. This should apply in the pharmaceutical industry as much as any other, but sometimes the picture is more complex.

Take the field of drug development for disorders of the central nervous system (CNS), for example. Demand for treatments to address CNS problems is booming, but the supply of qualified professionals is limited, hampering development. What can your pharma do to attract the best talent?

What is a CNS disorder?

The central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord. These organs receive signals from the peripheral nervous system, such as sensory organs, the eyes, ears and skin. The complex and delicate CNS system can be damaged, whether through trauma, infection, degeneration, structural defect, tumors, or issues with the immune system.

Problems within the CNS can lead to a wide range of different disorders, including stroke, meningitis, encephalitis, epilepsy, neuralgia, ALS, Parkinsons and Alzheimers. Many of these conditions are increasing in volume as the population ages and survival rates increase for other conditions such as cancer.

Why the CNS drug pipeline is challenging

CNS disorders are second only to oncology in pharmaceutical market size. However, the two areas have a remarkable difference in getting treatments to market: around 7,000 new cancer treatments are in the pipeline, double the number of CNS drugs.[i]

The reason for this discrepancy is that oncological drugs tend to have a higher approval success rate than CNS treatments. CNS drugs often progress through the first two stages of FDA approval, only to be refused at the third stage; this is an expensive way to have a new drug declined. CNS drug development has a 45% higher risk of failure than other drugs, while the cost of developing treatments can be billions higher.[ii]

Big pharmaceutical companies have responded by reducing their efforts on CNS research: GSK, Astra Zeneca and Novartis have announced closures of global neuroscience labs since 2011, while Pfizer, Sanofi, Janssen and Merck have downsized activities.[iii] Drug treatments promise diminishing returns, to some extent; new anticonvulsants, for example, are hard to develop and market leaders can quickly see profits slip as cheap generics flood the market soon afterwards.

The cost of discontinuing CNS research is considerable

If the price of developing CNS drugs is high, the cost of not continuing research is likely to be much higher. In Europe, around 38% of the population was considered to be affected by some brain disorder in 2010, at an economic cost of €798 billion in lost productivity, to say nothing of the level of human suffering.[iv] When costs such as nursing, care and home adaptation are factored in, the cost of not treating CNS disorders is massive.

Compared to fields such as oncology and infectious disease, CNS disorders are complex and tricky to treat, let alone ‘cure’. Much of the time, damage is currently irreversible and treatment centers on managing the symptoms of disease, such as tremors, memory loss or pain, rather than ameliorating the underlying condition.

Attracting top talent is the key to unlocking CNS potential

Successful new drug treatments can only be developed when pharmaceutical companies have the right talent in place. The goal of many professionals working in drug development is to see a treatment through to market approval, but CNS projects often falter at phase one or two. This puts many promising candidates off working in the sector.

Unfortunately, many pharmaceutical companies fail to appreciate that the limited talent pool in this area means they need to work harder to attract quality candidates. To compete with fields like oncology, CNS developers must be more creative.

What you should offer to secure premium candidates

Compensation is one key recruitment factor; professionals will want a step-change in salary in order to make a sideways move into CNS. Many professionals have payments of $200k or more written into their contracts if they remain in position for a set number of years. Companies have to offer equivalent amounts if they hope to lure these professionals away. Potential candidates will likely have spent a number of years working on a drug through various phases and trials and therefore it is never an easy decision just to walk away.  It is important that companies are making a compelling argument as to why a candidate should join their organization throughout the interview process.

Some smaller drug developers attract talented individuals who are willing to take a risk, by offering compensation in the form of shares which could be worth a fortune if a treatment reaches market. Offering equity and final bonuses can be a powerful recruitment tool.

Companies can also find skilled candidates by looking beyond the MD requirement often imposed for this type of work. Many candidates with PhDs and relevant experience are more than qualified to contribute fully to a team, but are overlooked by companies that stipulate an MD requirement.

The ultimate attraction: a rewarding career

There is, of course, one major attraction to a career working in CNS disorders: helping to find solutions that will improve the lives of millions of people around the world living with devastating illnesses such as Alzheimers and Parkinsons.

If companies can combine this promise with a creative and dynamic recruitment package, they should be able to secure the talent needed to develop tomorrow’s breakthrough treatments. What are you doing to attract top candidates?