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!