The April issue of Drug Discovery Today has an intriguing interview (PDF file) with Stuart Schreiber of Harvard. Schreiber is an only partially human presence in the field, as a listing of his academic appointments will make clear: chairman, with an endowed professorship, of the Department of Chemistry at Harvard, investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, director of the NIH's Initiative for Chemical Genetics, faculty member of the joint Harvard/MIT Broad Institute (a genomic medicine effort), affiliate of Harvard's Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Harvard Medical School's Department of Cell Biology, member of Harvard's graduate program in Biophysics and the medical school's Immunology Department, a player in the early years of Vertex, founder of ARIAD Pharmaceuticals and Infinity Pharmaceuticals, and founding editor of Chemistry and Biology. (What other name would the journal have?)
Schreiber is extremely accomplished and intelligent, but he can also be quite hard to take. A powerful pointer to this tendency comes when the interviewer asks him about who's been his greatest inspiration - he leads off with Muhammed Ali and Neil Cassidy, and for better or worse, that's just about the size of it. Mix those two together, give the resulting hybrid a burning interest in chemical biology and a chair at Harvard, and there you are.
I've not met him personally, but I've heard him lecture more than once. The first time I saw him, he was speaking on one of his big stories from past years, the immunomodulator FK-506. He hit the afterburners during the first slide and ascended into the stratosphere, leaving us ground-based observers with only a persistent vapor trail. Slide after slide came up, densely packed with years of data in a punishing, torrential rush - after a while, people in the audience were clutching their heads as their pens clattered to the floor. Some of my readers will, I think, have had similar Schreiberian experiences.
And the guy has no problem with saying just what's on his mind, although if I had those faculty positions, I'd wouldn't be feeling too many restraints myself. It's a mixed blessing. Some of what he's got to say is very sensible, even if no one else feels like saying it in so many words, but he can also come across as divorced from reality and impossibly arrogant. I would have to think that a post-doctoral position with him would be a rather stimulating experience, which would doubtless take place during days, nights, weekends, major and minor holidays, and probably during periodic flashback dreams in the years to come.
The interview starts out by asking Schreiber what he thinks of the new NIH Roadmap initiative. He sounds the alarm, correctly, about one thing it seems to emphasize:
". . .what is perhaps surprising to some people is how much emphasis the NIH has placed on small molecules and screening in an academic environment. A meeting with some senior pharma industry executives made me realize that there are many people who are unhappy with this activity. When I went back and read what is being proposed, some of the language suggests that the plan is to fund early drug discovery and development in an academic environment.
Yet some of the language also suggests that the Roadmap is about a parallel process of using chemistry and small-molecule synthesis and screening to interrogate biology. In this model, a parallel set of techniques is involved but the overall goals are very different. I am equally concerned as the pharma industry if the Roadmap were to place too much emphasis on the first model, because I think that a focus on drug discovery in academic would represent a missed opportunity. Sending the message to groups of industry-naÔve biologists and chemists that they should now try to discover drugs in their labs could be problematic for a variety of reasons."
He's right on target there, I have to say. And what does this do to the arguments some people make that just about all the research the drug industry does is ripped off from NIH-funded work? (I've mentioned this topic before; as we get the archives working again I'll group those posts together with this one.) Schreiber goes on to point out that drug development works completely differently from academic research, and that mixing the two might well end up compromising the strengths of each.
Academia should do what it does best: exploration, discovering new islands and continents of knowledge that no one even knew were there. We in industry can do some of that, but our strong suit is finding concrete uses for such discoveries. We're good at doing the detail work of developing them into something that works feasibly, reproducibly, safely, and (dare I mention) profitably. Getting all those to happen at the same time is no mean feat, as any engineer or applied-research types will tell you at length.
I'll have more to blog on the Schreiber interview; not everything he says in it is quite so sensible. But this point was worth some craziness. I'd like to take some of the folks who try to tell me that the whole pharma industry is some sort of profit-seeking leech on the NIH-funded world and lock them in a room with the guy and a couple of projectors. As long as I could be around as his audience staggered out, groping for painkillers and rubbing their eyes. . .