Barron exhorts GSK scientists to take 'smart risks'

GSK Chief Scientific Officer Hal Barron (GSK)

Hal Barron has detailed efforts to embolden GlaxoSmithKline scientists to take “smart risks” when developing drugs. The culture change is part of an effort to stop the fear of failure from pushing GSK researchers to make conservative decisions. 

Talking to the Financial Times, Barron discussed how rewarding teams that take molecules deep into the clinic and penalizing those that kill off assets early can subtly influence the interpretation of data. 

“Once you start fearing failure, you become so conservative that you end up basically moving towards things that are obviously going to work and therefore likely to be not very innovative. And, ultimately, it’s a death spiral,” Barron said.

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To cut the risk of such conservatism, Barron is encouraging staff to take more risks. Decisions about whether a risk is justified now falls on the individual who is in charge of a particular program. Before Barron’s arrival, GSK made decisions about whether to advance or drop a drug by consensus.

Ultimately, Barron hopes to double the proportion of development programs that end in approved drugs. Technology, notably artificial intelligence, is central to GSK’s efforts to boost productivity. 

If successful, Barron’s attempts to cut the failure rate could transform GSK, but the timelines involved in drug development mean the payoff from the reform agenda is unlikely to come quickly. With investors pressuring GSK to improve now, Barron and his colleagues need some near-team successes to appease people.

Barron thinks GSK’s pipeline features drugs capable of boosting GSK’s near-term prospects. GSK’s $5.1 billion purchase of Tesaro gave it control of PARP inhibitor Zejula and anti-PD-1 antibody dostarlimab, teeing it up to make inroads into the ovarian and endometrial cancer markets. Additionally, its internal team has taken anti-BCMA antibody-drug conjugate GSK2857916 to the cusp of a filing for approval.

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