Friday, November 4, 2011

Innovation in Academe?

This is a comment on an interesting post by Melba Kurman on the Science Progress website regarding the increasing emphasis on commercialization of academic science. Those of us older faculty members who were around before the 1990s surge in marketing of academic research sometimes feel that universities have lost their way. No doubt universities should contribute to economic development through technology transfer when genuine opportunities arise. However, the current emphasis on ‘entrepreneurship’ in academia has led to a skewing of priorities by faculty members and trainees. Instead of a focus on doing excellent science and then possibly considering commercialization as a secondary goal, too many academics now try to rush half-baked science to the market. Ph.D. students and postdocs seem more interesting in taking courses from the business school than in getting into the lab and doing creative experiments. I don’t think this trend bodes well either for the quality of academic research or for the value of technologies being transferred to the commercial arena.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Consensus and Dissent

In a recent Nature column Daniel Sarewitz discusses the limitations of the typical expert consensus report so beloved by the National Academies and other mainstream science organizations. He rightly points out that consensus is for textbooks while reasoned dissent is the heart of functioning science. The suggestion that such expert reports might follow the example of judicial practice and include both majority and various minority opinions is a refreshing one.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bringing science and policy together

I applaud the comments of P.W. Singer in a recent Nature article regarding the gap between practicing scientists and people concerned with science policy/ethics. While Singer points to this gap in the context of military robotics, it is equally valid for many other areas of advanced science. In fields that are more familiar to me including drug discovery and nanomedicine, active researchers may be interested in the economic value of their creations, but not very often in long term ethical or societal implications. I believe there is a strong case to be made for required training in policy and ethics in virtually all science Ph.D. programs. Likewise a modicum of advanced training in science should be requisite for anyone with a serious interest in science policy.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Biotech & Academe- who benefits?

A recent article in Nature Biotechnology described the formation of new alliances between biotech companies and leading universities. This follows an earlier trend of big Pharma investments in academe. Hopefully all this will result in new and better drugs for people. However, an issue not considered is the question of who benefits most from these relationships. As described in a recent article in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery (NRDD 2011 Jun;10(6):409-10) most academic drug discovery activities are still at a very early phase of development. Will increased linkages to biotech and big Pharma allow those companies to scoop up early stage IP for drug candidates for a very modest price and then go on to reap the lion’s share of the rewards as candidates enter clinical trials? I believe an important issue for universities is to consider how far along the drug development pipeline they can bring their candidates. A molecule in Phase I or Phase II clinical trials is worth many, many times more than a candidate with only cell culture or simple animal model data to support it. Perhaps universities need to consider some new strategies to help their internal drug discovery programs begin to cross ’the valley of death’ of formulation, ADME, and pre-clinical toxicology.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Future of Nanomedicine: Promises and Limitations

The nascent field of nanomedicine has evoked enormous interest among physical and biological scientists and has already attracted hundreds of millions of dollars of research funding. The great appeal of nanomedicine lies in it’s promise of using the unique properties of materials on the nanoscale to address some of the most challenging problems of medical diagnosis and therapy. While there have been some questions raised about possible toxicities of nanomaterials, and about the ethical implications of applying these advanced, but undoubtedly expensive, technologies to medical practice, for the most part the nanomedicine field has enjoyed unalloyed enthusiasm from both its proponents in the research community and from the public. However, will the promise of nanomedicine actually be fulfilled? A potential stumbling block relates to the internal intellectual culture of field, particularly the communications gap between the nanotechnologists and biologists, both of whose contributions are needed. This often leads to technological approaches that fail to reflect the complexity of biological systems and that are thus doomed to failure. For much more information on this topic contact me at Also see the article at:

Drug Discovery and Risk

An interesting article in Science Translational Medicine points out some of the deficiencies of the current model for drug discovery in big Pharma. Whereas historically drug discovery was driven by innovative and entrepreneurial scientists, it is now subjected to micro-management by company ‘bean counters’. The problem is that, unlike the generation of other types of products, pharmaceutical drug development is essentially driven by ‘black swan’ events not easily encompassed by business school management theories. Thus attempts to reduce risk through top-down management have actually increased risk and jeopardized the entire model of what was previously a highly innovative industry.

Academic Drug Discovery

With the decline of fundamental research in big Pharma there has been much written about the increasing role of academic centers in drug discovery. However, until recently there was not a great deal of solid information about the extent and progress of academic drug discovery centers. Thus much of the discussion was based on opinion and anecdotal information. This has now been remedied to some degree with the publication in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery of a fairly comprehensive survey of US academic drug discovery centers. Some of the major findings of this survey are:

i. Most academic drug discovery is still at a very early stage with few centers having candidates that have passed through the development phases of the 'valley of death' prior to clinical testing.

ii. As compared to big Pharma, academic centers are placing more emphasis on drugs for orphan diseases and for diseases that primarily affect less developed nations.

iii. Academic centers seem more wiling to address higher risk, novel targets that do not yet have clinical validation as playing a role in human disease.

iv. When asked to compare academic and industrial drug discovery research the survey respondents indicated that academia was much stronger than industry in disease biology expertise and innovation, while industry was perceived to be stronger in medicinal chemistry and in assay development and screening.

While these observations are not surprising, they provide a data-based benchmark for future evaluation of the progress of academic drug discovery.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ion Torrent

The Ion Torrent should be a great opportunity for small labs that have been left in the dust by mega-sequencing operations. A victory for small science!