About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« COX-2 Aftermath | Main | An Antiviral Example »

February 21, 2005

Can Med-Chem Help With Bird Flu?

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

If avian flu does gain a foothold in humans, what can drug companies do about it? (This should give you the latest headlines on the disease.) It's definitely something to worry about. There hasn't been a real rampager of a flu epidemic in a long time, and a pessimist would say that we're overdue.

The answer to my question is "Work on a vaccine!" Because if you rephrase it and ask "What can people like this Derek Lowe guy and his hotshot medicinal chemistry buddies do?", the answer is "Not much." It's not a widely appreciated fact among the public, but we have hardly any drugs that affect viral diseases. The disease with by far the largest number of therapeutic options is HIV infection, and if you find that an unnerving thought, you should.

The problem, as I've mentioned before, is that viruses don't give you much to work with. They have very small genomes, and thus code for a bare-bones set of proteins. Since those are generally what we'd attack, we're often at a loss to find a good drug target. Sometimes you can find a target in the human cells that the virus attacks, but that takes a lot of basic research into the infection process.

And even if we find a target, we're years away from a drug. Getting a chemical lead structure, optimizing it, making sure that it actually does some good (and doesn't do a corresponding amount of harm!) - it's a terribly slow process. And it's remained that way despite hundreds of millions of dollars waiting to be picked up off the ground by the first company that can shorten it. The incentives are there; the technology isn't.

That time scale probably won't be much use if we get into an epidemic one of these years. The virus will outrun us. The best thing we can be doing now is learning everything we can about the whole class of H5N1 influenza viruses and how to make broadly active vaccines against them and their combinations with human agents. Prevention, monitoring, and immunology are going to have to save us if we get into trouble. Because though it pains me to say it, people like me aren't going to be able to help.

Comments (7) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Infectious Diseases


1. David Govett on February 21, 2005 9:32 PM writes...

Unless you are able to eliminate 100% of the avian virus in a population, you'll be playing their game and will only improve their resistance. As they say, all or nothing at all.

Permalink to Comment

2. Kay on February 22, 2005 12:06 PM writes...

What about lack of commercial appeal? As we know, there are lots of (infectious) deseases that have the need, but marketing/business types in pharma kill the will.

Permalink to Comment

3. Amante on February 22, 2005 4:29 PM writes...

Vaccines generally aren't a huge commercial draw, you are right, however that isn't all of the problem. We are hurt from the start by the formidable opponent that a virus is and by the difficulty of storing vaccines in the case of a huge outbreak. Most companies keep little or no reserves because of how easily these things breakdown.

Permalink to Comment

4. Katherine on February 23, 2005 1:49 PM writes...

Are the current flu antivirals likely to be helpful in an avian flu epidemic?

Permalink to Comment

5. Kokostrollet on March 19, 2005 2:12 PM writes...

What is your opinion on how much (potential) protection a drug such as Tamiflu would give you vs. avian flu? None at all?

Permalink to Comment

6. Fen on March 23, 2005 11:59 PM writes...

Late to the party, but just one question:

Assuming a Biological attack, like a SuperFlu, whats the turn-around time for a vaccine from CDC? Weeks? Months?

I seem to recall that earlier efforts were not hindered by vectoring from modern/international transportation systems.

Permalink to Comment

7. Paul Dietz on March 24, 2005 1:38 PM writes...

I've stockpiled a course of tamiflu in the freezer, in case a pandemic does break out. If that happens, the drug will be nearly impossible to get, since demand will far outstrip the production capacity.

Permalink to Comment


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

The Last Post
The GSK Layoffs Continue, By Proxy
The Move is Nigh
Another Alzheimer's IPO
Cutbacks at C&E News
Sanofi Pays to Get Back Into Oncology
An Irresponsible Statement About Curing Cancer
Oliver Sacks on Turning Back to Chemistry