Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sequestering the Future of Young Scientists

A recent editorial in NATURE described the many negative effects of the sequester and other budget cuts on the state of US science.  Among the immediate public effects are reductions in NOAA weather monitoring just prior to hurricane season and in USGS monitoring of snowpack (and thus water supply) in the west.

However, in the long term, the most damaging aspect of the recent science budget cuts may be their effect on career choices by talented young people. Discouraging prospects for research funding and for career advancement will lead bright, internet savvy young folks away from science and technology and into other fields. Even among those who choose to go to graduate school in a science field, many young people are now projecting non-research careers in industry rather than considering academic research. This country has already suffered immensely by having some of its brightest minds seduced by the high payoffs of non-productive financial hocus-pocus on Wall Street rather than pursuing jobs in science, engineering or medicine. The current budget restraints will just compound this trend. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Recipe for Junk Science: take 1 part crowdfunding + 2 parts congressional oversight and mix.

Given the dire state of the economy it is not surprising that there is a lot of concern about the financing of research. This comes in two forms. Scientists anxiously seek new sources to augment limited federal funding, while government officials fret about the public getting value for its investment in science.

On the first issue, some investigators have been turning to ‘crowdfunding’, using sources such as Kickstarter, FundaGeek,  SciFund Challenge and others to raise money for their labs. The pluses and minuses of this trend are nicely discussed in a recent blog post on In the Pipeline ( While there may be some positive features of crowdfunding such as getting the public more involved in science, to this curmudgeon the pluses are far outweighed by the negatives. Ultimately success in public fundraising is contingent on ‘selling’ your science, leading inevitably to a race to the bottom where scientists/salesmen promise ever more to their supporters.

On the other issue, this week’s SCIENCE reports on a proposal from congressional Republicans to alter the way the National Science Foundation awards grants, ostensibly to improve the quality of the research being supported. The “High Quality Research Act” authored by Representative Lamar Smith of Texas would require the NSF to certify that its grant awards address ‘national interests’ and “problems of utmost importance to society”.  Aside from the obvious fact that most basic research does not immediately address ‘national interests’, this ploy is obviously a step toward squelching science that contradicts the ideology of the extreme right wing of the Republican Party. Will unbiased climate science be considered in the national interest by a Texas Republican? How about research on alternative energy sources? How about therapeutic cloning? However, maybe “research” supporting creationism could pass congressional scrutiny!

Political intrusion of this type is just about the worst thing that could happen to American science and technology. If we want to guarantee that we lose our technological leadership to competitors like China and India, then the “High Quality Research Act” is the way to go.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Horns of the dilemma: value to cancer patients versus profits to drug companies.

The pharmaceutical industry has recently developed several drugs that produce remarkable benefits in certain cancers. These include both small molecules and monoclonal antibodies or other macromolecules.  However, in some cases these life saving drugs come with astronomical price tags of $100,000 per year or more. Patients and insurers have long been concerned about these costs, but now oncologists have also started to rebel (1). This began with a group of physicians at Sloan Kettering cancer center in NY who objected to the high price of Zaltrap®, a new drug from Sanofi. It has since spread, and many oncologists support a commentary in the April 25 issue of the journal Blood (2) advocating for lower drug prices. In addition to Sanofi, criticism has been leveled at Novartis the maker of Gleevec®, as well as at other producers.

One of the problems in this area is the increasingly fragmented nature of the cancer drug market. As studies in cancer genomics have progressed the existence of multiple cancer subtypes has emerged, with each potentially requiring a different therapeutic approach.  One of many examples of this is the recently published study of endometrial carcinoma (3) that has divided this disease into four distinct categories and also revealed previously unsuspected relationships to some forms of breast and ovarian cancers. Unlike ‘classic’ cytotoxic anticancer drugs like doxorubicin that are used in a variety of cancers, many of the newer agents are highly selective for particular cancer subtypes. Since each subtype involves far fewer patients than previous broader cancer classifications, the industry response has been to raise prices. The argument, of course, is that this is necessary to cover R& D costs.

The issue of drug pricing came to the fore at the recent Biotechnology Industry Association meeting in Chicago, as reported in C&EN (4). Business oriented consults advocated that drug and biotech companies carefully consider future value and reimbursement issues before proceeding too far down the development pathway. However, this approach would put profit considerations squarely in opposition to the advance of science. As understanding of cancer (and other diseases) advances rapidly it should become possible to design drugs that have dramatic impacts on individual disease subtypes. Gleevec® is the current hallmark of this, since it has revolutionized therapy of chronic myelogenous leukemia but is useful only in this disease plus a few rarer cancers.

We seem to be coming to a sort of end game with current models of cancer drug development.  Patients need advanced drugs but our health system cannot sustain outrageous costs. Some new ideas about drug development strategies have been published recently (5) and more thought needs to be given to this critical area.