Lilly head continues call for medical innovation

TOKYO — Eli Lilly leader John Lechleiter has become something of an evangelist for medical innovation lately.

On Wednesday, the Lilly chairman, president and CEO spoke to the U.S./Japan Business Council in Tokyo to call for changes and policies in the biopharmaceutical industry that encourage innovation, or “reinventing invention,” as he called it.

“We believe that wise investments in healthcare innovation will be among society’s most productive investments in the years ahead, and that medicines represent the most cost-effective approach to preventing and treating disease,” he said.

Japan has among the world’s fastest-aging societies, with almost 45,000 centenarians, a number expected to jump to 272,000 by 2050, with 40% of the population 65 years or older by then, according to a United Nations survey.

Lechleiter made similar remarks last month at The Economist magazine’s 2011 Pharma Summit in London, when he called for new approaches to research on diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

His promotion of innovation is notable, considering that it’s what big drug companies, such as Lilly, will need to stay afloat as a boatload of blockbuster drugs go off patent and face generic competition over the next few years.

The companies most vulnerable to generic competition, like Pfizer and Merck, sought to reinvigorate their pipelines with biotech drugs by buying out Wyeth and Schering-Plough, respectively, while French drug maker Sanofi-Aventis is spending $20.1 billion to acquire biotech giant Genzyme, and Bristol-Myers Squibb has transitioned from a traditional pharmaceutical company into a biotech company.

Lilly has avoided big-ticket acquisitions and sought instead to invest in its research and development pipeline, which already included a significant biotech segment.