Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Caloric intake and aging

The concept that a calorie restricted diet could extend lifetimes and reduce major diseases like cancer has been around for a while and has been tested in a number of lower organisms with promising results. However, a 25 year long calorie restriction trial in our cousin the rhesus monkey failed to show such effects (see URL below). Animals  fed a diet with 30% less calories than controls, while healthy, did not outlive their fatter peers.  It is too bad that this simplistic approach to longevity did not work. However, twiddling one dial seldom works in complex biological systems. The pursuit of human enhancement, including enhanced lifetimes, will no doubt go on and no doubt there will be some successes. Perhaps we need to start thinking more about the societal consequences of such efforts before we go too far down that path.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The (squishy) Robots Are Coming (and taking your job!)

Two disparate articles this week got me thinking about the future of work. A feature in the NY Times described the rapid evolution of workplace robots that can seemingly do the type of complex assembly processes that now occupy millions of low-wage workers overseas. This may help to return some manufacturing to the US, but will not be providing many new jobs. An article in SCIENCE discussed ‘soft machines’ that move similarly to soft-bodied sea creatures and that can assume new colors or shapes.  Coupled with advances in computer based speech recognition and response (e.g. Apple’s Siri), it is not hard to project these developments into the creation of android-like machines that could mimic many human functions in the workplace, not only in manufacturing but in many service related activities as well. Do we need to start thinking about a workplace without humans?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A failed Alzheimer's therapy; implications for pharmaceutical R & D

A recent note in Science Insider describes the failed clinical trial of a monoclonal against β amyloid. The failure of bapineuzumab is a blow to Alzheimer’s patients, their families, and to the pharmaceutical companies that have made major investments in the underlying research and clinical trials. Addressing chronic disease in the CNS is clearly a challenging and risky proposition. The failure of massive phase III studies such as the bapineuzumab trial is a key driver of the escalating costs of R&D in big pharma. This raises the question of whether the current model of pharmaceutical R&D is able to address diseases like Alzheimer’s or whether novel strategies are needed. Individual company-specific research programs and clinical trials may be nearing obsolescence. New approaches involving a higher degree of cooperation between industry, government and academia may be essential to address the difficult challenges of multifactorial chronic diseases. Drug development in the precompetitive space is being increasingly considered as an alternative strategy, but the concept needs further evolution.

For more information on this topic watch for an upcoming Kindle book “Pharmaceutical Innovation and Public Policy: the Case for a New Strategy for Drug Discovery and Development”.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Are stem cells drugs?

Apparently they are according to U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Legally establishing stem cells as drugs may be good news for academic drug discovery. This is an area where academics have extensive experience while big pharma does not. While engineered stem cells will no doubt need to go through the equivalent stringent safety testing as conventional drugs, the approaches and technologies used may be more consistent with contemporary academic biomedical research labs than the rather sterile pre-clinical toxicology studies used for drugs. Thus maybe another boost for academic drug discovery centers.