Friday, February 19, 2016

The Way to Cure Cancer- Not!

This week’s Nature had an article critical of the new $1 billion cancer cure project from the Obama administration. I agree with the journal. While one sympathizes completely with VP Biden’s recent tragic loss of his son to cancer, this is not the way to move forward. As in the past, throwing big bucks at cancer will probably involve large scale, multi-investigator ‘translational’ research projects that are often inefficient and unproductive.  What will ultimately benefit cancer patients is continuing research on basic molecular mechanisms of cancer and how to alter those mechanisms. For example, the recent evolution of the CRISPR gene editing technology, a basic research discovery, is likely to have a greater positive impact on cancer therapy than many of the more applied projects sponsored by the NCI. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

More Bad News for Biomedical PhDs

A recent article in SCIENCE provided a thorough study of several thousand early career PhD graduates from several large public universities. I guess the good news is that most of them were not employed at McDonalds or Walmart. However, the bad news is the paltry salaries that many young PhDs are receiving, particularly those in the biomedical sciences.

Most newly minted biomedical PhDs go on to do academic postdoctoral stints, so it is not surprising that this group has low wages. However, according to the study about 25% of graduates go into industry where one would expect higher wages. To be sure industrial salaries are higher than academic postdocs, but they still run in the $50-75,000 range. Considering that a PhD is a 4-7 year investment, it is interesting to compare industry salaries for early stage PhDs with those of a postman ($51,790). 

The low salaries no doubt reflect the laws of supply and demand. With universities continuing to churn out PhDs the value of the degree is diluted. Overproduction of PhDs in the biomedical sciences, as well as industry driven importation of low wage foreign workers especially in computer science, both drive down salaries.

This is an old story that has been commented on several times in this blog—but nothing seems to change. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Yes Paul Ehrlich Was Right! Its Just a Matter of Timing.

The NY Times had an Opinion Page today on whether overpopulation is a threat, with mixed opinions being expressed

I don’t understand how there can even be a debate on this?
Population growth is not slowing as rapidly as the experts expected. The UN keeps revising its population projections upward.
The billions in Asia, Latin America and Africa will not be denied their chance to experience the consumerist life style long enjoyed by developed countries.
The net result will be the complete destruction of the natural world. Will humans survive? Probably- but living on yeast protein and cowering from the mega-storms unleashed by global warming.

Friday, June 5, 2015


As described in a recent article in Nature, the advent of a powerful gene editing technique based on the CRISPR-Cas9 system is leading to a revolution in molecular biology and possibly in medicine. For a couple of decades scientists have known how to introduce or modify genes in cells by a process called homologous recombination.  When done in stem cells, the gene modified cells can be re-implanted and can give rise to tissues, including reproductive tissues, and thus eventually to genetically modified organisms. A major problem is that the entire process is very inefficient. Several previous attempts to increase the efficiency of gene editing have involved ‘designed’ proteins such as the Talens nucleases or zinc finger nucleases that can cut DNA at specific sites thus creating opportunities for recombination. However, preparing these designed proteins is difficult and time consuming.

The great advantage of the CRISPR-Cas system is that it uses a short RNA molecule to target the site in DNA that needs to be cut, with the cutting provided by the Cas enzyme.  It’s easy to design RNAs that can hybridize with specific DNA sites, and the entire CRISPR-Cas system can be engineered into a viral vector that is also quite easy to use.  Thus this approach has revolutionized laboratory practices for gene modification in cells for basic research purposes.

CRISPR can also impact in vivo studies. For example, an animal with a gene defect can provide stem cells. The stem cell gene can be ‘corrected’ in the lab using CRISPR and the corrected stem cells re-infused into animals. Potentially the stem cells can then engraft in tissues and thus fully or partially correct the defect in the animal. This has already been done in a number of studies in mice.  Obviously the same is potentially possible in humans but has not yet been done.  Some investigators have tried to correct genetic defects in mice by directly injecting the entire CRISPR-Cas9 system, but this is very inefficient in its current state of development.

The very power of this technique is beginning to cause ethical concerns. For example a group in China reported editing the genes of human embryos. The potential for this type of activity has caused leading scientists in CRISPR research to advocate restraint and careful design of projects to avoid risks to humans.

The CRISPR-Cas technology clearly has enormous potential. However, it needs to be viewed in the same perspective as all new biomedical technologies. Monoclonal antibodies, siRNA, nanomedicine- each of these potentially transformative technologies has followed the same path, with an initial period of almost irrational exuberance, followed by disillusionment as problems inevitably emerged, followed by a more considered assessment of ultimate therapeutic potential. So will it be with CRISPR.  

Friday, May 29, 2015

Smart Machines Getting Too Smart For Humans?

This week’s Nature has a section on ethical aspects of robotics and artificial intelligence. Reading this article, the associated comments, and the accompanying special section on Machine Intelligence in this week’s issue, has left me deeply concerned. The accelerating capabilities of both individual intelligent machines and the Internet itself raise all sorts of questions about whether human beings will be better off or not if artificial intelligence continues to evolve in its current uncontrolled fashion.  It seems we need a measured assessment of both the potentials and hazards of this thrust before we proceed much further. Clearly it is always difficult to accurately anticipate the path of an emerging technology and to create guidelines concerning its development and implementation. Nonetheless society has done this previously in the context of other transformative technologies such as nuclear weapons and genetic engineering. Although there is plenty of hype in the media, it surprises me how little the issue of Artificial Intelligence has been addressed by ethicists or by governmental bodies. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Antibiotic Resistance: Big Pharma Fails to Address the Challenge

A recent report in SCIENCE is another example of ‘Big Pharma’ failing to address important public health issues.  The problem of resistance to conventional antibiotics is reaching crisis proportions, accelerated by the widespread use of antibiotics in mass agriculture. The technology to develop powerful new drugs is there, but the profit motivation is not.  In many respects this situation is similar to the problem of developing medications for diseases such as malaria that primarily affect poorer countries and thus provide little opportunity for large profits. It is encouraging to learn that some governments are seeking ways to break the roadblock on antibiotic development. However, is this enough?  One might argue that this key area of drug research be pursued through innovative public funding rather than be left to the dictates of Wall Street. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Global Warming? Capitalism to the Rescue!

In a very interesting article in Nature (1) Nathan Fabian discusses the role of global investors in the transition from a high carbon to a low carbon economy.  He points out that capital investments are trending toward lower emission energy sources such as solar and away from high emission sources such as coal. This is happening not because of the investor’s altruism but because of cold calculation about risk/reward ratios. Basically green energy may be a safer bet than coal for the long run.

However, the capitalist calculations are inevitably based on government policies. As the article admits, the expectation of political actions such as instituting carbon taxes, removing subsidies to oil and coal industries, and providing subsidies to green energy development are part of the investor’s calculus. Thus, as usual, it is up to governments to channel the behavior of capitalists into socially productive pathways.