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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

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October 30, 2005


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Posted by Derek

I do a fair amount of complaining (maybe I could just stop and put a period there. No?) about how people don't realize the difficulty of taking an idea for a new drug all the way to the market. But I shouldn't be the tiniest bit surprised, because depictions of research skip most of the work. How would anyone who doesn't do this stuff realize how time-consuming it is?

When I started doing real lab experiments, it struck me that I was spending an awful long time purifying messy reaction mixtures and trying to make sure that I'd made what I thought I'd made. Now, twenty-odd years later, it seems like I spend a awful lot of time doing those same things. There's no way around either one of them, but you'd never know it from virtually any depiction of scientists at work. Having a character spend three days running a chromatography over again (and again) because the peaks aren't well resolved doesn't advance the plot very well, does it? There's nothing page-turning about combining a long run of messy mixed fractions, evaporating out all the solvent - which always takes much longer than you thing it will - and sending them down yet another column, which will generate a few pure cuts and another heap of mixed fractions.

These delays are found in every operation of a research lab, and they scale in a fractal-type manner. Five-minute tasks have at least a minute's worth of delay in them (waiting for the thick syrupy starting material to dissolve so you can toss a magnetic stir bar in there without getting it stuck), and five-month tasks have at least a month's worth (figuring out why the large batch of material for the serious toxicology runs doesn't dissolve as well in the dosing vehicle as all the other batchs). And the five-year tasks? Try an extra year of enrollment for the pivotal clinical trials on for size.

So asking a drug researcher how they could have worked for X years without ever producing a drug is a bit like asking a soccer team: "You booted that ball around the field for ninety minutes and didn't even put the thing in the net?" Nothing plays defense like nature can.

Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. Marc on October 31, 2005 8:52 AM writes...

The misunderstanding lies in what you said last week in 'October 24, 2005 Hype or Hope?'

I think that most people do (or would) understand that it is a long and tedious process. But we (define we as you wish) keep telling them that we have had a major breakthrough. They are constantly lead the beleive the guys in the labcoats have finally finished most of the work.

But they do understand that there is a reason why they wear labcoats, and why they keep wearing them, even after so many years.

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2. milo on October 31, 2005 11:33 AM writes...

Nothin' beats getting an NMR only find that you need to run yet another column...

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3. Timothy on November 3, 2005 9:59 AM writes...

I think when people hear "major breakthrough" they automatically think "miracle drug" due to any number of cultural factors (media hype, ignorance of the scientific process, etc), when the case might actually be that the major breakthrough is but one more step toward something useful.

It isn't medicine, but look at the recent building of nanocars. That's a major achievement for science, but most people are going to go "So, they build a molecule that rolls around, what's it good for?"

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4. Dave on November 4, 2005 12:06 PM writes...

I'm a electrical engineer who does design work in a government laboratory, and I run into the same kinds of issues every day.

Should I spend my time fixing my equipment, or delving into creating more functionality? Some would say "oh, that sort of work is for a technican", yet, I have yet to find a technican who is able to achieve my standards for how the equipment ought to operate and how the lab ought to be arranged.

The "fun stuff" is the good part of the job, but there is certainly a great amount of "grunt work" that goes into any good design, and I think that is the crux of the matter. When you produce a successful design, it can appear to others that you spend your time working only on that design.

I think with any technical endeavour, most of the "real time" is spent dealing with the millions of details that have to be done just right in order to accomplish anything. If you are going to produce a design that is on the edge of what is possible, then every minor detail is going to have to be dealt with by the same team who is trying to push the edge.

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