Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Who is to blame?

Merv Turner, the chief strategy officer at Merck & Co. apparently blames research failure for the woes of the pharma industry, according to Scott Hensley at ScienceInsider.


This caught my eye, got my heart rate up, and had me reaching for my cranky pants. Well done.

On the other hand, hasn't big pharma been telling us, like forever, that the reason prescription drugs are so expensive is that they need to recoup for the buckets and bundles of money lost pursuing failed drugs that never come to market. And not because they are greedy capitalists?

(Pharma, being much like any blockbuster driven industry: the film industry, the music industry, in which most products brought to market lose money and you count on the big hits cover those losses and help you make a modest profit.)

It's not easy to find a compound for manufacture that can be safely ingested by anyone that also effectively cures a specific ill without causing a whole slew of others.

That aside, isn't the course of most research and innovation fraught with failure? If you were to cost for NIH grants the ratio of successful to failed experiments, how would those numbers look? I wonder. The numbers might be worse considering all the questions out there to be asked. On the other hand, the numbers might be better because you don't have to worry about efficacy or toxicity in humans on top of everything else.

The thing is, research is a process for seeking answers. You don't know the answers when you get started. And you don't know what pitfalls you will encounter in the process. It's risky. It's discovery. You set sail for India and end up in South America. You set out for the Louisiana Purchase and end up walking in circles through your own backyard, sometimes for years.

That's why most people would prefer to pursue a degree in English or an MBA.

It's unclear what Merv Turner said next in his talk. There are a variety of ways to proceed. To identify the worst costs and look for ways to minimize them is wise. To restructure your research priorities with the goal of avoiding failure, seems not as wise.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

mealtime small talk

The other day I was sitting next to a scientist at a banquet, a genomicist to be more precise. Genomics is hot hot hot right now. With the advancement of technology bringing an increase in speed and decrease in price, it's all about the study of the sequence. And the hope that by mining the data locked therein we will find a way to live longer and better, if not forever.

It seems to be a clean kind of science with a different process and a different rhythm - divided between those in production who run the platforms and those who write the algorithms, do the statistical analysis and stare at the data.

For those of us who have done a more traditional kind of science, we can only wonder whether it is time to put down the pipette and shut down the micriscope because this is the future or eventually this storm will run its course and we will be able to use the huge amounts of data that come out to help us guide our more old-school means of investigation.

But I digress. At dinner, my companion asked me where I thought the next questions in biology were - the "next big thing." And I gave the standard pat answers: evolution and the brain - the biology of cognition.

Which today seems to be to be incredibly short sighted. Those are the next questions that follow our reductionist and model organism driven means of inquiry.

But really it's not a question of next questions. The true question in biology is as it has always been. Life. Each living thing has developed highly sophisticated and individualized strategies to survive and thrive. A diversity of possibility and application that living things have developed in response to opportunity - all out there to be observed and studied, to be quantified and characterized, to be tested and to be understood. And it's all around us and inside us. That is and was always the question.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

the mighty fruit fly

Any number of things are studied in the fruit fly.

The effects of ethanol, of cocaine, of methamphetamines, sleep, circadian rhythms, neurodegenerative diseases, aging, courtship, olfaction, agression and fighting. It's quite amazing. There are studies in which they cut off the top of a fly's head and insert probes to study brain activity in response to different odors.

Reminds me of that scene in Hannibal ... ew.

And someone told me over lunch that there is a guy who is trying to genetically engineer a mouse to be bat-like with long tarsels that can be the framework for wings!

Another gentleman tells me that he had a 6 years stumper to his research that he has been able to overcome in the last nine months. He generated 9 antibodies against a protein for naught but the 10th and 11th have opened the door to considerable study!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

nit pickiness

Many many people in science go through a phase in which they fall in love with Richard Dawkins. They just think that he's the bees knees. I have yet to actually read one of his books and don't really have an opinion on him. He was on Charlie Rose today and he said that if you transcribed your entire genomic sequence and stored it in a book, sometime in the future someone could pull out that book and through future technology recreate you. And this individual would be your identical twin.

In making this statement he is not taking into account the Maternal Effect in development - after sperm and egg fuse there is a period of time in which all proteins that are made are provided by the Egg. The egg is full of yolk which provides nutrition it also carries mRNAs from the mother which lead to the expression of the mother's genes until the first cell division. And in development subtle early differences can have significant effects later on.

He is also not taking into account Epigenetic Effects. Having a gene doesn't always mean that you express it. And in the case of some genes there is a random process by which you either express the copy of a gene that you inherit from your father or the copy you inherit from your mother.

There is also the possibility that the things that happen to you in the womb could also affect who you are.

I don't know how major these factors are in making you who you are. Mothers who are playing Mozart to their bellies must think it matters.

But we shall let science and history decide in this face off between Dr. Dawkins and me.

En garde!