One of the reasons I starting this blog was that many people I met were interested in my job. Very few of them had ever talked to someone who discovered new medicines for a living, and a surprising number of them (well, surprising to me) had no idea of where medicines came from in the first place.
Talking to such folks (interested, but with no particular training in science) gave me some good practice in explaining the work. It helps that the kind of work I do is actually fairly easy to explain. There are a lot of details – as with any branch of science, the closer you look, the more you see – but I haven’t run across any key concepts that can’t be communicated in plain language. (It also helps that medicinal chemistry, as it’s actually practiced, uses an embarrassingly small amount of actual mathematics).
The toughest things to deal with are the parts of the field that actually touch on physics and math. My vote for the hardest everyday phenomenon to explain at anything past a superficial level is magnetism. So that means that explaining how an NMR machine works is not trivial. At least, explaining it in a way that a listener has a chance of understanding you isn’t – a while ago, I took up the challenge to try to explain it here in lay terms, and I haven’t done it yet, for good reason.
Explaining statistical significance is doable, but going much past that (principal components, the difference between Bayesian and frequentist approaches) takes some real care. And, of course, when you open the hood on chemical reactivity, the mechanisms of bond-forming and bond-breaking, you quickly find yourself in physics up to your armpits. It’s easier to stipulate, openly or by assumption, that there are such thing as chemical bonds, and that some of them are stronger than others. You don’t want to start answering a question about why one group falls off your drug molecule easier than another one does, only to find yourself fifteen minutes later trying to explain the Pauli exclusion principle. Counterproductive.
But the basics of medicinal chemistry can be sketched out pretty quickly, which makes some of the more curious listeners wonder, after a while, why we aren’t better at it. The best example I can give them is to advance a quick, hand-waving explanation of, for example, how compounds get into cells. Then I point out that that explanation is unnervingly close to the best understanding we have of how compounds get into cells. The same holds for a number of other important processes, way too many of them.
And that's why drug discovery is simultaneously frustrating and fascinating. We know huge numbers of things, great masses of detail that can take years to piece together. And it's not enough. Some of the most important puzzle pieces are still weirdly ill-defined, and there are probably others whose existence we haven't even realized yet. I'd be willing to bet that if you scanned the whole history of pharmaceutical discovery, you'd find people at every point thinking "You know, in any thirty years they should have all this figured out". But the years go by, and they - we - don't. Give it another thirty years, you think?