What Viagra tells us about sustainability and redirection

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Analysis: as the little blue pill shows, a solution to one problem can often be successfully repurposed to solve a different challenge

The story of Viagra, a billion dollar drug from Pfizer, is well known. Initially, the drug was meant to be a treatment for angina pectoris (chest pain), but its side effects led to its commercially very successful redirection into a treatment for erectile dysfunction.

Finding new uses for existing solutions to solve unresolved problems and customer needs is the key feature of redirection. The potential for redirection is rather evident in the biopharmaceutical industry: think of the multiple attempts to use existing drugs as treatments for Covid-19. But it’s worth remembering that the Play-Doh creative arts and crafts toy was originally used as a wallpaper cleaner or player interaction opportunities in the popular Fortnite game have been repurposed to accommodate a concert series in virtual space?

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From Discovery Plus, the story of Viagra, the little blue pill that changed the world

Looking at these and other examples, you may be surprised to find that redirection has enormous potential to address unmet needs and to make our economy and society more sustainable. Therefore, sustainability is not limited to responsible and environmentally friendly production and consumption. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals emphasize economic aspects in addition to environmental and other aspects, such as access to (affordable) medicines and healthcare services.

With regard to sustainable production and consumption patterns, the reorientation helps us to make the production and use of products more environmentally friendly by giving products a second life. For example, think of the pedestrian bridge in Co Cork built with used wind turbine blades, or how batteries from Nissan’s LEAF electric vehicle reach the end of their life cycle in a car and are then reused as power supplies. help for level crossings.

Beyond the environmental aspects, conversion brings economic benefits because it reduces development times and costs. Automaker Stellantis was able to launch its officer protection package in its Dodge Charger Pursuit police cars almost instantly and with only minor changes to the car’s dashboard. The Officer Protection Pack reuses pre-installed parking sensors and the rear camera to detect movement behind the car, alerting officers to a possible ambush. This example highlights the potential gains to speed up the development process. Additionally, the researchers estimate that repurposing could save more than 80% of development costs.

Repurposing has the potential to boost sustainability in various dimensions.

This last aspect is particularly important if we think about sustainability from a health perspective. The potential cost savings associated with the repurposing of existing drugs enables the development of drugs for rare diseases and for unmet therapeutic needs around the world and makes drugs more accessible. Examples of the benefits of switching in this context include zidovudine, the first HIV drug approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, which was originally developed as a treatment for cancer.

But the success of repurposing existing solutions is not guaranteed. To increase the chances of success of the reorientation, collaboration is imperative. Collaborative partnerships can provide additional revenue to one partner while providing access to critical resources and expertise to the other partner. An example of this type of collaboration is BMW’s partnership with Off Grid Energy, a UK-based electricity supplier for off-grid sites, to find new applications for used electric vehicle batteries.

Until very recently, most examples of redirection were not the result of systematic research efforts. As in the case of Viagra, reuse occurred when promising but often unintended effects were discovered in the development process. To make reassignment more successful and less dependent on serendipity, digitization is also important.

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From Sci Show, how an ancient remedy became a modern remedy for malaria

In many cases, the search for solutions that can be reused is simply too vast to be done manually. For example, pharmaceutical giant GSK screened over 2 million compounds to find a new treatment for malaria. Artificial intelligence can handle massive research tasks like this and can help predict the effectiveness of existing solutions in a different context.

Specialized companies like IQVIA use artificial intelligence and machine learning to find the most promising retraining candidates. In addition, technical and managerial expertise is needed to assess the expected cost, development time and market potential of proposed solutions for reorientation.

To realize its full potential, we need to think about the economic incentives that society provides for reassignment. Even if cost savings are likely, considerable effort may still be required to demonstrate feasibility, efficacy or safety and to obtain regulatory approval for repurposed solutions. This is relevant not only for healthcare industries, but also for software and many manufacturing industries. Airbus recently said hundreds of test hours will be required to achieve type certification for its A321XLR aircraft, a converted long-range version of its successful A320neo family of single-aisle aircraft.

Reassignment tends to be more frequent than we normally assume

Moreover, reused solutions are often on the market or at least known for several years before being applied in a new context. For example, it took 3M several years to reuse a new adhesive in its Post-its. In this context, regulatory changes may be needed, and policymakers need to consider how innovators can avoid immediate imitation and secure value through repurposing when patent protection is not an option.

The examples above show that reallocation tends to be more frequent than we normally assume and has the potential to boost sustainability in various dimensions. However, to realize its benefits, more systematic research efforts and better incentives are needed.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ


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