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July 17, 2002
A Twisty Road
The business news has been on top of the science news recently, that's for sure. Maybe we can go a week or so without accounting issues, mergers, and whatnot.
I wanted to call people's attention to a good article in July 8 issue of The Scientist (free, but registration required.) It's a history of a recently developed vaccine for the common bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, a common cause of adventitious infections and septic shock. "Recently developed" isn't too accurate, though, since the research has been going on since the mid-1960s.
I won't go into all the twists and turns of the story, but there are plenty of them. At every step, there were good reasons to think that the entire idea wasn't going to work. Some of these were: Staph aureus doesn't have a polysaccharide capsule, need for a vaccine - wrong. The ones that people cultured didn't have much of one, but the real-world organisms do, of a tricky and complex kind. You can't raise good immunity to that kind of polysaccharide, then - wrong. It took some doing, but an antibody response was seen. OK, but they won't be protective, because people have them already - right, but wrong, for various intricate reasons.
The end result was reported earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine, showing a statistically significant decline in S. aureus infections in dialysis patients who received the vaccine. It wasn't a knockout blow, but it was pretty effective for something that was long thought impossible. More trials are underway.
I'm not beating the drum for the vaccine (although I wish it, and its licensee, a company called Nabi, well.) I am beating the drum for sticking with projects through bad patches, as long as there are experiments to run that can get you out of them. There's no point in flogging a project that's come to a dead end, of course, and there's always some useless thing you can think of to try to keep working. But I'm talking about definitive experiments. You should never give up until you've run the best make-or-break tests you can think of.
It's a truism in the pharmaceutical industry that every great drug project has come close to dying at some point. This vaccine effort faced termination more than once, but stayed alive because it passed crucial tests at the crucial times. Maybe having near-death research experiences is actually helpful. They concentrates the mind on key data and key experiments, on the stuff that could be the most convincing evidence to keep things going.
Many projects come to those points and fail, of course. But the projects that I'd mourn are the ones that got killed off before they even got a chance to redeem themselves. Most of them would have failed, as well. Most projects do. But some of them could have been contenders.
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