There's an interesting letter to Science in the latest issue (Nov. 4, #5749, p. 777), in response to their special section on drug discovery in the July 29th issue. Adrian Ivinson, a former editor of Nature Medicine and now head of a new research center at Harvard Medical School, writes that the section:
". . .did not recognize an increasingly relevant but underappreciated and underutilized role for academic research in drug discovery.
Universities invest may millions in basic research that exposes disease mechanisms and therefore unearths new targets. Yet few have invested in the relatively modest infrastructure required to put their discoveries to the test. As a result, many promising targets gather dust on the university shelf. . ."
Really? Send 'em over here. I've spent a lot of time defending the way the drug industry takes basic research from academia and turns it into applications. (See the September 9th, 2004 post here and work up from there if you're interested). The usual complaint is that that's all we ever do, so it's refreshing, in a weird way, to hear a complaint that we're not taking enough. But if these targets are being published somewhere even semi-reputable, believe me, we're seeing them.
And as for the "relatively modest infrastructure", that depends on what you mean by modest. For example, the research site I work at does no manufacturing, no human trials, no large animal toxicology studies, and very little scale-up chemistry (just enough to get through two-week rodent runs). But we have hundreds of people working here, in several rather large and expensive buildings crammed full of expensive stuff. Now, it's true that we're working on a number of projects simultaneously - just how many, I'm most certainly not going to say. But you'd need a lot of this stuff around no matter how few projects you were developing.
Dr. Ivinson goes on to say that assay development and validation, compound screening, medicinal chemistry and preliminary animal tests are functions "well suited" to academia. Perhaps, perhaps. But it should be noted that there are some well-known people (such as Stuart Schreiber) with experience in both academic and industrial research who worry about academia's ability to do this sort of thing. He also says:
"Demonstrating a credible mechanism and target, proprietary lead compounds, and preliminary in vivo efficacy will be enough to bring some of our industry colleagues back to the table."
That it will! Be prepared, though, to drop more than a good-sized grant application's worth of money to do that, though. It's harder than it looks to get that far. And those proprietary compounds might scare away as many companies as they attract, by the way. Proprietary means, of course, that you guys own them, and that means that we have to buy them. We'd naturally much rather have our own compounds. That would mean demonstrating proof of concept with something that's not patentable, but there are worse things. We can always screen, and believe me, we have a lot more things in our screening files than you do.
As I've said, I think that Dr. Ivinson is underestimating the difficulty of drug discovery, but at least he realizes that it's worth doing. The letter finishes with a sentiment that I can only applaud:
"But this will only happen when academics stop treating drug discovery as the intellectually inferior domain of the commercial sector and start seeing it as the natural development of their research."