Should pharma harness social media for R&D?

When pharma folks talk about social networking, it's usually in a marketing or public relations context. Using Twitter to generate traffic to a disease-awareness website or to report news about a new drug; launching iPad apps to help patients manage their diabetes; monitoring blog comments for accuracy and responding with the facts.

But a Boston Globe op-ed suggests that social media could be a new frontier for drug development. If pharma companies could gather real-world data from prescribers, they might find new uses for existing drugs. As the authors point out, Viagra resulted from side-effect reports in a cardiovascular trial, and some psychotropic meds trace back to a tuberculosis study. Through physician postings online, drugmakers might identify other unintended benefits of their meds.

So why doesn't Big Pharma set something up? It could be a thorny FDA problem, given the ban on off-label promotion. But a greater fear might be its unintended consequences. Set up a networking site to find unanticipated benefits, and you might come up with unexpected safety problems instead. Very public safety problems, given that the reports would be online and out in the open. And such unverified safety problems could spook patients .

Such is the double-edged sword of social media--it's a means of spreading both good and bad news. And like everything else online, it can't be tightly controlled.

- read the Boston Globe piece
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