While the idea of using concepts from aerodynamics in pulmonary drug delivery strikes the lay person as nothing short of brilliant, Jeff insists that this is only the start: “There are a lot of smart people out there and coming up with the idea is the easy part. The concepts around what you’re trying to do is often the hard part. It comes down to figuring out what the true end need is and that’s not as easy as it seems.”
This is where his refusal to be bound by prevailing industry wisdom – to “step outside of conventional thinking” – paid dividends: “There are lots of misconceptions about what’s important and it’s hard work figuring out what’s true. Understanding what those misconceptions are often leads to opportunities.”
So, while the team was “really excited at changing the aerodynamics of particles,” in order to convert the concept into an actual product that could be delivered into the lungs, “we had to miniaturise the whole process and create an entirely new type of particle engineering technology.” Jeff realised that the key to this was to create a very different-size particle: one less than the width of a human hair.
If that was yet another moment of inspiration, the deep reservoir of scientific and engineering knowledge and capacity for sheer hard graft would not have borne fruit without an element of apparently pure chance: “We weren’t in [the inhalation market at that time] and weren’t looking to do it – we stumbled upon it when doing other work.” In fact, Respira had another product with pharma giant GSK, who asked Respira “if we had anything else and we started thinking about it. That’s when we went into the inhalation field. It was accidental in the sense that the product we were making and got marketed was for a totally different field that had nothing to do with inhalation … so it was serendipitous in the sense that that’s not what [the spray dry powders] were being developed for. But we noticed their aerodynamic properties, started thinking about it and made those analogies back to baseball.”
This begs the question: is there such a thing as pure chance? Collins English Dictionary defines serendipity as “the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident”. While allowing that there is faculty in the process, even this doesn’t fully account for the alchemy that lies behind true innovation. Jeff has his own theory: “You draw on all of your experiences to try and move forward. When first developing pulmospheres, we were doing it for something different than the broad application that it actually looked into. We were leveraging two other products and creating a whole new technology and in some ways that’s how innovation takes place. You leverage innovation you’ve done to continue to move forward.”
And while the problem-solving and creative aspects of his work are both immensely satisfying, ultimately it is his innate humanitarianism that is really the driver behind Jeff’s thirst for innovation, as the Novartis video makes clear: “What really keeps me going and doing this work is getting out and meeting the people we’re actually developing these drugs for. It is very gratifying to see the benefits people get from taking the medications you’re working on. It’s a great feeling.”
For more on Jeffry Weers and Real Innovation Awards' winners, watch this film:
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How TOBI Podhaler was born
The history of how TOBI Podhaler was created is a classic example of how innovation, rather than resting purely on a sudden, blinding revelation, often stems from an unlikely series of events. The story began when Jeff’s team at Alliance Pharmaceutical Corp in San Diego came up with the concept “way back” in the mid-1990s. The technology was subsequently acquired by Inhale Therapeutic Systems (later Nektar Therapeutics) in 1999; Nektar then made a deal with Chiron to develop it; Chiron was then acquired by Novartis; Novartis later also acquired the pulmonary business unit of Nektar in 2009... and eventually completed development of TOBI Podhaler. (Jeff left Novartis in 2017 and is now at Respira, who had no role in the development or marketing of TOBI Podhaler, which Novartis continues to own and market.) Child’s play...