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October 2, 2006
RNA Interference: Film at Eleven
Every time a Nobel Prize is announced, reporters try to put in some sort of "news you can use" context. That's usually pretty easy to do with the Medicine/Physiology prize, and usually impossible with Physics. Chemistry falls into a middle ground - as opposed to some of the pure-knowledge physics awards, the chemistry discoveries are being used to do something in the physical world, but explaining what that is can be tough.
How did the popular press handle today's award? I invite readers to share any particularly clueless news stories, but most of the the reports I've heard have stressed the potential therapeutic value of RNA interference. There's often been a list of diseases that might be treated, with no particular timeline given, which is a good thing. NPR at least had some disclaimers in there, mentioning near the end that researchers still needed to find a way to dose the compounds, get them to the tissues of interest, make sure that they weren't toxic, and prove that they do affect the diseases they're targeted for.
Minor details, all of 'em. Right? That's just about 85% of drug development right there, actually, and the fact that these can be lumped together at the end of a news segment might be why (among other things) the "government research discovers all the drugs" idea has such staying power. I think that people see all those hard steps without realizing that they're hard . All that stuff about dosing, toxicity, selectivity, it's all what you do in the last few months before you hit the pharmacy shelves, I guess, along with picking a color for the package.
RNA interference is probably going to have a long climb before it starts curing many diseases, because many of those problems are even tougher than usual in its case. That doesn't take away from the discovery, though, any more than the complications of off-target effects take away from it when you talk about RNAi's research uses in cell culture. The fact that RNA interference is trickier than it first looked, in vivo or in vitro, is only to be expected. What breakthrough isn't?
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