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October 30, 2005
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.
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