Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Are Nanotechnology and Pharmaceutical R & D both about to jump into the pre-competitive pool?

In a thoughtful commentary in NATURE Joshua Pearce discusses how conventional intellectual property strategies (i.e. patent thickets) have hindered the development of commercial nanotechnology. He calls for an open source approach to basic nanotech development similar to the open source software movement. This is a very interesting analysis. It seems that there may a convergent evolution going on in the nanotech industry and the pharmaceutical industry. After decades of focusing almost entirely on internal R&D, big pharma is slowly learning the merits of 'pre-competitive collaboration'. As discussed in  previous posts on this blog, there have been several major thrusts in this direction both at level of preclinical research and more recently at the clinical trials level.

Obviously money still needs to be made both in pharma and in nanotechnology; thus allocation of rewards will be important even in more collaborative models of R&D. In an interesting opinion piece in SCIENCE, Garret FitzGerald argues that new intellectual property approaches are also needed in the drug development field. He goes on to describe some novel strategies for sharing rewards in proportion to the contribution to the final product (a marketed drug) rather than being based on the traditional initial composition of matter patent.

On a broader horizon it is interesting that two of the most technologically advanced segments of our economy may be moving toward models that deviate substantially from classic 'dog eat dog'  capitalism. Will the 'invisible hand' of the market be supplanted by collaborative helping hands that foster more innovation and broader benefits to society?



Tuesday, November 20, 2012

RNAi Feud Is Over

Despite many problems there is still a lot of enthusiasm about using siRNA for therapeutic purposes. Alnylam and Tekmira are two of the better companies in the commercial RNAi arena. However, for the last year or so they have been locked in a legal battle concerning some formulations (termed Lipid Nanoparticles (LNPs)) used to deliver siRNA. It has been sad to see them waste resources on a patent squabble at this critical time for the field. Now apparently this dispute has been settled (see CEN report below).  Thus presumably things will move more smoothly in applying LNPs to deliver siRNA to targets in the liver, where the technology works great.

But what about targets in organs other than the liver? LNPs have a dismal record in this context since they are too big to cross capillary walls in most tissues. Industrial and academic scientists need to work together to develop some advanced siRNA delivery technologies that will have a broader reach within the body.  


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Scientific Career Prospects: Will We Never Learn?

The American Chemical Society recently sponsored a webinar on ' The Doctoral Glut Dilemma', providing an overview of the current dismal prospects for PhD employment. One of the interesting things about this whole issue is the divergence between spokesmen from government and industry who constantly deplore the 'shortage' of talented scientists and technologists, and the experience of recent PhDs who can't find jobs no matter how hard they try. Then of course there are the economists who say that unemployment among PhDs is slightly less then for everybody else so things are not so bad. This is very consoling after you have spent 5 years toiling as a poorly paid graduate student!

This problem is not new. Debates about overproduction of PhDs have been going on since the 1980's, but we never seem to learn.

The answer of course is to engage in academic birth control. The perverse incentives that lead university faculty members to recruit more and more graduate students need to be reversed. The emphasis should be on quality not quantity.

There is much more on this issue in previous posts on the Science for the Future website.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Opportunities for the next generation of scientists?

The election is over. Now the question is whether we will continue on the same self-destructive course of the past decade or will we start to heal ourselves and build for the future. Clearly America’s economic success in coming years will rely more and more on its leadership in science and technology. But where will that leadership come from? The cutbacks in federal research funding over the last several years have been devastating to the nascent careers of young scientists across the spectrum. In my own area of biomedical research funding percentiles for NIH grants have plummeted to historic lows, with less then 10% of new grants being funded. This is incredibly stressful for young investigators, introducing major disruptions and uncertainties both in careers and in the lives of young families. How can we attract the best and brightest young people to science and technology when career prospects are so dismal?

To ameliorate this situation we need to do several things. First, despite the constrained fiscal climate, our political leaders need to recognize the key role of science and technology for future economic success and begin to re-invest in science. Second, our academic institutions need to understand that they have engaged in a profligate overproduction of science PhDs and that the emphasis in the future should be on quality not quantity. Third, both academia and industry need to give some thought to mechanisms to enhance career stability for scientists so that the loss of a grant or the end of a project doesn’t mean the end of a career. Maybe this is a pipedream, but if we don’t take these measures we are going to be rapidly surpassed by nations that take a longer view of science, technology and economic growth.