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A leading CRO’s chief exec on why a ‘brave new world’ of clinical research is here

Few in the industry have as much “inside baseball” expertise on clinical research as Peter Benton. As president and co-CEO of Worldwide Clinical Trials, a global research organization, Benton is on the frontlines of major shifts in pharma R&D. And decades of experience across major roles at J&J, BioClinica and more have given him a long-range view of where the industry has been — and where it’s headed. 

That doesn’t mean Benton is never surprised by how things change. If you told him five years ago that psychedelics would become a “big part” of Worldwide’s business, Benton said he would have been “suspicious.”  

Benton, who remembers what it was like when the sector first began moving from paper to electronic processes, said he’s also been amazed at how far and how quickly tech advances like AI and cutting-edge therapies have come. 

To dial in further to these shifts, the company revamped its bioanalytical lab last year into a “state-of-the-art” facility in Austin that includes large-molecule capabilities. 

“I still think we only know 10 or 15 percent of how the human body works.”

Peter Benton

President, co-CEO, Worldwide Clinical Trials

“Ten or 15 years ago, there were a lot of generics and small molecule studies going on. Now, large molecule, and cell and gene therapies, are changing the landscape,” he said. “So our phase 1 unit has evolved.”  

Still, amid the rapid changes in the industry and growth at Worldwide, the company has continued to stand on pillars of drug development services in major therapeutic areas such as oncology and rare diseases.  

Here, Benton shares his bird’s-eye view of pharma’s evolution, what major shifts in the industry — such as the growth of mid-sized companies — mean for drug R&D, and the vexing issues he discusses with other CRO execs.  

This interview has been edited for brevity and style.  

PHARMAVOICE: What are some of the prevailing trends you’re seeing in the clinical trials space?  

PETER BENTON: When I look at the broader macroeconomic view of the industry, the growth of the emerging to mid-sized biotechs is bigger than we realize. In my J&J days over 20 years ago, large pharmaceutical companies dominated our landscape — the Pfizers, the GSKs, the Amgens and others. Now, there are 5,000 emerging to mid-sized biotechs. Five thousand. And that number is expected to double and potentially quadruple in the next 10 to 15 years. And so, the future of our industry are these emerging to mid-sized biotechs. 

And the industry is expanding. We’ve gone from treating symptoms of diseases (to) treating diseases at the cellular level, at the molecular level. We’re understanding pathways and signaling. We’ve got gene editing, gene splicing, all sorts of new tools at our disposal. I still think we only know 10 or 15 percent of how the human body works but when you look at all the things that are happening — from mRNA vaccines to stem cell treatments and gene therapies — it truly is a brave new world of clinical research. 

At the same time, the industry is becoming dominated by these emerging to mid-sized biotechs and so there’s just so much growth, so much potential, so much to do and learn. 

How does this emerging landscape of smaller companies affect that biotech, CRO partnership?  

The emerging to mid-sized biotechs need to move quickly. They’ve got a limited amount of cash. So they need to make progress as fast as possible to figure out if their drug works because that’s the future of their company. And so, you’ve got some of the speed and urgency that’s coming from the emerging to mid-sized biotechs and then large pharmas and biotechs still provide a lot of funding and ideas and exploration into new areas.  

And software development, AI and all these other technologies — the innovations come from these providers. There’s a lot of DCT companies out there. Will they all survive? I’m not so sure. But they’re all doing their part to help us advance how we do clinical research. 

When it comes to a good partnership, trust is No. 1. What else goes into a good partnership?  

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