I've been meaning to comment on the NIH's new venture into drug discovery, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Curious Wavefunction already has some thoughts here, and I share his concerns. We're both worried about the gene-o-centric views of Francis Collins, for example:
Creating the center is a signature effort of Dr. Collins, who once directed the agency’s Human Genome Project. Dr. Collins has been predicting for years that gene sequencing will lead to a vast array of new treatments, but years of effort and tens of billions of dollars in financing by drug makers in gene-related research has largely been a bust.
As a result, industry has become far less willing to follow the latest genetic advances with expensive clinical trials. Rather than wait longer, Dr. Collins has decided that the government can start the work itself.
“I am a little frustrated to see how many of the discoveries that do look as though they have therapeutic implications are waiting for the pharmaceutical industry to follow through with them,” he said.
Odd how the loss of tens of billions of dollars - and vast heaps of opportunity cost along the way - will make people reluctant to keep going. And where does this new center want to focus in particular? The black box that is the central nervous system:
Both the need for and the risks of this strategy are clear in mental health. There have been only two major drug discoveries in the field in the past century; lithium for the treatment of bipolar disorder in 1949 and Thorazine for the treatment of psychosis in 1950.
Both discoveries were utter strokes of luck, and almost every major psychiatric drug introduced since has resulted from small changes to Thorazine. Scientists still do not know why any of these drugs actually work, and hundreds of genes have been shown to play roles in mental illness — far too many for focused efforts. So many drug makers have dropped out of the field.
So if there are far too many genes for focused efforts (a sentiment with which I agree), what, exactly, is this new work going to focus on? Wavefunction, for his part, suggests not spending so much time on the genetic side of things and working, for example, on one specific problem, such as Why Does Lithium Work for Depression? Figuring that out in detail would have to tell us a lot about the brain along the way, and boy, is there a lot to learn.
Meanwhile, Pharmalot links to a statement from the industry trade group (PhRMA) which is remarkably vapid. It boils down to "research heap good", while beating the drum a bit for the industry's own efforts. And as an industrial researcher myself, it would be easy for me to continue heaping scorn on the whole NIH-does-drug-discovery idea.
But I actually wish them well. There really are a tremendous number of important things that we don't know about this business, and the more people working on them, the better. You'd think. What worries me, though, is that I can't help but believe that a good amount of the work that's going to be done at this new center will be misapplied. I'm really not so sure that the gene-to-disease-target paradigm just needs more time and money thrown at it, for example. And although there will be some ex-industry people around, the details of drug discovery are still likely to come as a shock to the more academically oriented people.
Put simply, the sorts of discoveries and project that make stellar academic careers, that get into Science and Nature and all the rest of them, are still nowhere near what you need to make an actual drug. It's an odd combination of inventiveness and sheer grunt work, and not everyone's ready for it. One likely result is that some people will just avoid the stuff as much as possible and spend their time and money doing something else that pleases them more.
What do I think that they should be doing, then? One possibility is the Pick One Big Problem option that Wavefunction suggests. What I'd recommend would also go against the genetic tracery stuff: I'd put money into developing new phenotypic assays in cells, tissues, and whole animals. Instead of chasing into finer and finer biochemical details in search of individual targets, I'd try to make the most realistic testbeds of disease states possible, and let the screening rip on that. Targets can be chased down once something works.
But it doesn't sound like that's what's going to happen. So, reluctantly, I'll make a prediction: if years of effort and billions of dollars thrown after genetic target-based drug discovery hasn't worked out, when done by people strongly motivated to make money off their work, then an NIH center focused on the same stuff will, in all likelihood, add very little more. It's not like they won't stay busy. That sort of work can soak up all the time and money that you can throw at it. And it will.