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STS Seminar Series looks at social pharmaceutical innovation for rare diseases

STS Seminar Series looks at social pharmaceutical innovation for rare diseases

The second talk of the 2021-22 Science and Technology Studies (STS) Research Seminar Series takes place on Tuesday, Oct. 5 from 12:30 to 2 p.m. and features Conor Douglas, assistant professor in York University’s Department of Science and Technology Studies. His talk is titled “Social Pharmaceutical Innovation for Rare Diseases: Towards a Conceptual Definition and Research Program.”

According to Douglas, there is something wrong with the way the pharmaceutical industry researches and develops drugs. Of the roughly 7,000 currently identified rare diseases, he says, only about 570 treatments have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat about 11 per cent of those rare diseases. As a result, millions of patients around the world go untreated. Some of the challenges facing research and development in this space are scientific and technical; however, there are also a number of critical issues that are thwarting more rapid development of drugs that are more associated with social, economic and political factors that have come to characterize the current innovation paradigm within the pharmaceutical industry.

Headshot of Conor Douglas
Conor Douglas

This presentation will argue that the current model of pharmaceutical innovation alone will not deliver the quantity of products needed to address the unmet needs faced by rare disease patients, nor at a price point that is sustainable for health-care systems. As a consequence, radical transformations are needed across the pharmaceutical research, development and deployment life cycle that stand to offer alternative, supplementary and hopefully transformative pathways to a greater number of increasingly accessible treatments. Douglas will explain how principles of social innovation have been developed and deployed in other sectors and how those principles can be applied in the pharmaceutical sector. He will briefly introduce social innovation and its key features before demonstrating what he calls “social pharmaceutical innovation,” why it is important and how he hopes to foster it. 

Douglas’s presentation is part of a larger international collaborative project called “Social Pharmaceutical Innovation for Unmet Medical Needs,” with partners from the University of Sao Paulo (Brazil), Mines ParisTech at the Université PSL (France) and Utrecht University (Netherlands). The Canadian component of the study is funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and more information about the project can be found at

Now in its 28th year, the STS Research Seminar Series features seminars on a wide range of STS-related topics. Sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology Studies and co-ordinated by its members, the series has hosted over 500 speakers from Canada and around the world.

All events in the series will run on Tuesdays from 12:30 to 2 p.m. They are all free and open to the public, with no registration required. They will be delivered via Zoom in the fall term, with the winter term to be determined. To receive a Zoom link for this event and others in the series, contact Conor Douglas, seminar series co-ordinator, at

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York: follow us at @YUResearch; watch the animated video which profiles current research strengths and areas of opportunity, such as artificial intelligence and Indigenous futurities; and see the snapshot infographic, a glimpse of the year’s successes.