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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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May 16, 2008

Nanotech Stem Cells, Order Now!

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Posted by Derek

A good rule to follow: hold onto your wallet when two exciting, complicated fields of research are combined. Nature reported earlier this spring on a good example of this, the announcement by a small biotech called Primegen that they'd used carbon nanotubes to reprogram stem cells. (Here's a good article from VentureBeat on the same announcement, and there's an excellent piece on the announcement and the company in Forbes).

Stem cells and nanostructures are two undeniably hot areas of research. And also undeniable is that fact that they're both in their very early days - the amount of important information we don't know about both of these topics must be really impressive, which is why so many people are beavering away at them. So what are the odds of getting them to work together? Not as good as the odds that someone thought the combination would make a good press release, I'm afraid.

The PrimeGen web site, though a bit better than that VentureBeat article describes it, still has some odd notes to it. I particularly like this phrase: "PrimeGen’s broad intellectual property portfolio is founded on groundbreaking platform technologies invented by our team of dedicated and visionary scientists." Yep, we talk that way all the time in this business. You also have to raise an eyebrow at this part: "Disease and injury applications of PrimeCell™ include Alzheimer’s Disease, Cardiac Disease, Diabetes, Lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, Leukemia, Muscular Dystrophy, Parkinson’s Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Spinal Cord Injury, Autoimmune Disease, Stroke, Skin Regeneration and Wound Healing." It'll mow your yard, too, if you're willing to participate in the next funding round.

The next sentence is the key one: "The extent to which stem cells can be used to treat injury and illness has yet to be fully evaluated. . ." You can say that again! In fact, I wouldn't mind seeing that in 36-point bold across the top of every stem cell company web page and press release. But what are the chances of that? As good as the chance that nanotechnology will suddenly going provide us a way to make the stem cells do what we want, I'm afraid. . .

Comments (11) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Biological News | Press Coverage


1. burt on May 16, 2008 8:43 AM writes...

Has anyone written a javascript to author grant proposals / capture VC money yet? Combine at random words like Nanotechnology, "Stem cell", Anthrax, genomics, kinomics, Biofuel, "location-aware", "touch screen", OLED?

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2. Mark M on May 16, 2008 10:18 AM writes...

careful, Derek, or you'll get blamed again for someone "loosing" thousands because the stock price goes down [think Dendreon investor]

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3. Arthur Beetson on May 16, 2008 11:12 AM writes...

As Tom Waits said, " It gives you an erection and wins the election"

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4. Nick K on May 16, 2008 12:11 PM writes...

How many buzzwords can you get into a single press release? This one must be a record.

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5. SRC on May 16, 2008 12:25 PM writes...

Will those stem cells also cure the Curiously Teutonic Orthography of the Press Release?

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6. Mike M on May 16, 2008 12:45 PM writes...

"Nanotech stem cells" - that seems to ring a bell...

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7. Ng Swee Choon on May 16, 2008 7:25 PM writes...

What will happen to the pharma industry, when generic drugs become widely used? Will that stop big pharmas from researching and discovering new drugs and new therapys? Will patient care suffer as a result of the widespread use of generic drugs? I am curious to see how you see it??

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8. Erik on May 18, 2008 11:55 AM writes...

To Ng Swee Choon:
Could you clarify what you mean when you say that "generic drugs become widely used"? Because as it currently stands, they are widely used. The bulk of the most useful drugs out there (such as warfarin and the penicillins) are already off patent and used in generic form. Most of the statins will be off patent in a few years as well.
Since the former case is the current state, I assume you're talking about something more radical, like dropping patent protection altogether. This will have highly predictable results: a large number of drug companies will either go out of business or switch entirely to biomolecules, where the cost of developing a generic is much higher, ensuring some degree of protection. This will result in an immediate improvement in patient care, as numerous drugs will become cheaper. However, the opportunity costs would be high, as precious few, if any, new drugs would be developed. Moreover, the immediate improvement would not be terribly great, since a large number of drugs currently in use are already generic.

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9. eugene on May 18, 2008 2:43 PM writes...

I think he doesn't mean that Eric, and it's a good question that might deserve its own blog post. I don't think that many people are aware that drugs had a limited patent life all their entire life and that pharma has to constantly do research on new things in order to stay competitive.

I think in the developing world, a lot of the drugs made recently are still on patent, and the people there haven't experienced a history of drugs going off patent and generic makers moving in. Tying in to that, is generic firms in developing countries disregarding patent law, with companies complaining that they need that money to make new drugs, and people might get concerned that patents are expiring on some exotic HIV treatments, new antibiotics, etc...

That being said, I have no idea where the hell Ng Swee Chon is from, but his website makes me think of Malaysia for some reason. Plus, he could also mean widespread disregard of patent law, and then your explanation is probably better.

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10. Ng Swee Choon on May 20, 2008 5:10 AM writes...

Thanks Eugene,
No I am not from hell. You are right, I am from malaysia, where we do have patency laws protecting patents, but with rising cost of healthcare, more doctors and the public hospitals are turning to generics, and so the patent companies are feeling the pinch. I am quite concern that soon, no new drugs would be researched upon and discovered. Looks like in US it is different. In Malaysia, most GPs and the public hospitals use generics, where available. The private ( fee for service specialist ) still use mainly patented drugs, unless patents expire and everyone in generic.
Thanks for all your thoughts.

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11. Jonadab the Unsightly One on May 25, 2008 1:34 PM writes...

> In Malaysia, most GPs and the public
> hospitals use generics, where available

A lot of people in the US, probably even most of us, also use generics when they are available. But perhaps we mean different things by "when they are available". For recently-developed drugs, generics don't become available until the patent expires.

Patent duration in the US is twenty years, but I'm given to understand that doesn't necessarily mean twenty years after the product becomes available to the public. I think it's more like twenty years after the patent is granted, so by the time the drug gets through FDA approval and everything and becomes available to the public (even with prescription), there is often somewhat less than twenty years left. I'm not sure exactly how long, and it probably varies.

Once the patent does expire, though, generics start to appear and then the price drops considerably. The brand-name drug will still consistently cost more than the generics, but not nearly as much as drugs that are still under patent protection.

So, what new drugs are developed? Mostly ones that are not really equivalent to any already-available drugs. For example, I don't know when the last time was that a genuinely new over-the-counter analgesic pill came out, but I think it might have been ibuprofen, and that's been in generics at least since the eighties. Why are drug companies not pouring resources into new over-the-counter analgesic pills? Because there's no money in it. Why is there no money in it? Because we don't *need* it. We already have several perfectly good ones on the market (not least acetaminophen, which has very few side effects in normal dosages).

I'll admit, there are a few exceptions, drugs the world could really use that aren't being developed at least partly for lack of money. If more of the developed world were more tropical, there would probably be more money going into antimalarials, for instance. But IMO these things are the exception rather than the rule.

On the whole, the market is working as it should: the things that the drug development companies are pouring effort (and money) into are mostly drugs that people really want to buy, which currently aren't really available, or the ones that are available have significant problems. This is exactly what you would want. So I would say that the patent system as it stands, at least in the US, is doing a pretty good job of driving the right drug development efforts.

The *results* aren't always what the companies doing the development are hoping for, but that's not an economics problem.

If any changes in US patent law are needed, I think that medicinal chemistry is not the field to look at for that.

(Notice I have consistently talked only about the situation in the US. I haven't said anything about Malaysia because frankly I don't know enough to make an intelligent statement about it.)

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