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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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October 17, 2011

Harvard to the Rescue

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Posted by Derek

Harvard is announcing a big initiative in systems biology, which is an interdisciplinary opportunity if there ever was one.

The Initiative in Systems Pharmacology is a signature component of the HMS Program in Translational Science and Therapeutics. There are two broad goals: first, to increase significantly our knowledge of human disease mechanisms, the nature of heterogeneity of disease expression in different individuals, and how therapeutics act in the human system; and second — based on this knowledge — to provide more effective translation of ideas to our patients, by improving the quality of drug candidates as they enter the clinical testing and regulatory approval process, thereby aiming to increase the number of efficacious diagnostics and therapies reaching patients.

All worthy stuff, of course. But there are a few questions that come up. These drug candidates that Harvard is going to be improving the quality of. . .whose are those, exactly? Harvard doesn't develop drugs, you know, although you might not realize that if you just read the press releases. And the e-mail announcement sent out to the Harvard Medical School list is rather less modest about the whole effort:

With this Initiative in Systems Pharmacology, Harvard Medical School is reframing classical pharmacology and marshaling its unparalleled intellectual resources to take a novel approach to an urgent problem: The alarming slowdown in development of new and lifesaving drugs.

A better understanding of the whole system of biological molecules that controls medically important biological behavior, and the effects of drugs on that system, will help to identify the best drug targets and biomarkers. This will help to select earlier the most promising drug candidates, ultimately making drug discovery and development faster, cheaper and more effective. A deeper understanding will also help clinicians personalize drug therapies, making better use of medicine we already have.

Again with all those drug candidates - and again, whose candidates are they going to be selecting? Don't get me wrong; I actually wish everyone well in this effort. There really are a lot of excellent scientists at Harvard, even if they tell you so, and this is the sort of problem that can take (and has taken) everything that people can throw at it. But it's also worth remembering Harvard's approach to licensing and industrial collaboration. It's. . .well, let's just say that they didn't get that endowment up to its present size by letting much slip through their fingers. Many are those who've negotiated with the university and come away wanting to add ". . .et Pecunia" to that Latin motto.

So we'll see what comes out of this. But Harvard Medical School is indeed on the case.

Comments (41) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Drug Development


1. Curious Wavefunction on October 17, 2011 8:11 AM writes...

At least it sounds less misguided and vague than the genomics-based translational effort at the NIH.

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2. PharmaHeretic on October 17, 2011 8:13 AM writes...

This should create a lot of jobs for paper pushers and frauds of various flavors. There will be many colorful PR events and ads showing "Harvard scientists" curing cancer and aging in 5-10 years- something that will never materialize. Once the money runs out of this ponzi scheme, we will have another public disappointment which nobody will admit to.

Science has now fully become a bizzaro world where ponzi schemes (initiatives) meets plantation slavery (treatment of non-tenured staff and students). Publish or perish, "metrics" of performance, grant committees, the insatiable appetite for more graduate students but zero career opportunities for them make any real advancement of science effectively impossible.

Academia is trying its best to make Catholicism look good. Come to think of it- Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and various denominations of Protestantism have better working conditions for their graduates (priests) and they don't pretend to be involved in the objective search for truth.

Any real reform will require the abrupt and irreversible disappearance of the current paradigm and its scumbags (academic) and sociopathic (administrator) supporters.

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3. nitrosonium on October 17, 2011 8:20 AM writes...

so any ideas on the budget for this "initiative"?

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4. Anonymous on October 17, 2011 8:35 AM writes...

My read of the press release is not that Harvard is going to be selecting drug candidates, etc., but rather that they claim their research effort will provide greater knowledge to guide the selection and development activities of others.

Whether it pans out, of course, is another question.

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5. anonymous on October 17, 2011 9:05 AM writes...

You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can't tell him much....... Same goes for their efforts to correct the wrongs of big pharma and biotech. They have an institutional autism while convincing alumni to cough up $$,they don't listen well.

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6. trrll on October 17, 2011 9:20 AM writes...

Ambitious goal for an institution that no longer has a Department of Pharmacology...

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7. luysii on October 17, 2011 9:41 AM writes...

One of the most painful procedures that undergraduates, grad students and new faculty undergo at Harvard, is the lengthy surgical extraction of any trace of humility, done without anesthesia.

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8. Virgil on October 17, 2011 9:59 AM writes...

So basically, they're just re-branding/re-launching the Broad Institute (joint systems biology initiative with MIT) ?

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9. Hap on October 17, 2011 10:00 AM writes...

I thought the loss of humility was pretty painless - it's the replacement of the humility afterwards that's sort of painful.

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10. anonymous on October 17, 2011 10:06 AM writes...

"But it's also worth remembering Harvard's approach to licensing and industrial collaboration. It's. . .well, let's just say that they didn't get that endowment up to its present size by letting much slip through their fingers....." Intriguingly, my physician, a Harvard trained MD, used the same approach as he asked me to turn my head and cough. Fortunately for me, praise be to the Risen Lord, he deigned to accept what Blue Cross/ Blue shield was will to pay him.

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11. anonymous on October 17, 2011 10:13 AM writes...

#7, luysii.. Man, you are SUCH a killjoy!!
Harvard Medical School, '78.

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12. Pete on October 17, 2011 10:20 AM writes...

Hopefully the Monster Minds of Harvard will figure out how to measure free intracellular concentrations of drugs in (live) human subjects. There is a tendency for polypharmacology and toxicity to be seen purely in terms of affinity. No doubt Harvard will fight fiercely, being spurred on by Mr Lehrer's stirrign anthem:


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13. Josh on October 17, 2011 10:21 AM writes...

Wow. Thats a bunch of negative energy being spewed toward a group of people looking for answers. great discovery has no road-map guys, we dont know how to get to where we want to be. any effort that advances the state-of-the-art technology and provides a better life, even for a select few, is going to win my good graces.

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14. anonymous on October 17, 2011 11:17 AM writes...

#13 Josh: One can understand people seeking answers to difficult questions. Great discoveries do not have roadmaps, but to some extent, precedence and experience counts. Ego (corporate or individual) tends to blur perspective and perception. I would still like a guide to accompany me as I explore the Grand Canyon, because there is a subtle difference between a swail and a precipice.

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15. dearieme on October 17, 2011 11:42 AM writes...

"great discovery has no road-map": for much of scientific history there was rather a good road map viz. get a good instrument that nobody else has and exploit it energetically.

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16. Bernard Munos on October 17, 2011 11:46 AM writes...

At the last count, 40% of the human genome, though cloned years ago, is still unknown. We don't know what it does, although it probably does important things. Until we figure them out, I am afraid initiatives to improve system pharmacology will be struggling. It's really hard to model a system with such a large component eluding understanding. I would welcome a different kind of initiative, one aimed at completing the annotation of the human genome. That might enable predictive biology, system pharmacology, etc, although I realize additional layers of complexity (e.g., epigenetics) would remain.

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17. black_death on October 17, 2011 11:47 AM writes...

Why Harvard gets a penny of taxpayer money via grants is beyond me. They've got what, 32 billion?

NIH dollars really subsidize faculty wine parties and jacuzzi renovations. More importantly, NIH dollars funds the endowment which funds the endowment managers multi-million dollar percentage of the gains.

Harvard is just an excuse to fund a hedge fund.

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18. Vader on October 17, 2011 12:36 PM writes...

Harvard to the rescue! Our geniuses are only too happy to help the dim bulbs in the pharmaceuticals industry get things moving again.

... Doesn't it come across that way to you?

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19. SteveM on October 17, 2011 1:26 PM writes...

Harvard has injected scores of arrogant Idiot-Savant Power Elites into the economic and political environments (combined = Crony Capitalists), where they proceeded to wreck economies, trash businesses, initiate stupid senseless Wars and craft warped social policies with disastrous but foreseeable unintended consequences. Harvard people may be smart, but they ain't that smart.

Hopefully, Harvard can dial down the hubris and conceit to yield better luck with this scientific initiative.

BTW, when someone tells you they graduated from the Kennedy School of Government, the proper response is to "Run away!".

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20. pete on October 17, 2011 1:29 PM writes...

@13 Josh
Agreed - quite a lot of snark here, especially given our difficulties in charting a successful roadmap to drug discovery.

At a minimum, this Initiative will draw bright youngsters into an environment where cross-disciplinary thinking is the norm. Who knows - it may just turn out some unique 'minds' that go on to big things in bioscience & drug discovery. Is that a bad thing? (...or maybe you like our current "R as overhead" mentality in Biotech/Pharma)

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21. SteveM on October 17, 2011 1:55 PM writes...

Re: #20 Pete, More snark: "At a minimum, this Initiative will draw bright youngsters into an environment...

BTW, another technology sandbox where immigrant Asians will preferentially displace native born American scientists?

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22. Josh on October 17, 2011 2:22 PM writes...

#21 Steve M.

If you are tired of being preferentially displaced, and I don't know how one prefers to be displaced, but if you are tired of it, then be better at what you do. You are living in a capitalist society my friend, if you don't want to be booted by someone who you think is not worthy of the job then show that YOU are worthy of it.

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23. trrll on October 17, 2011 2:25 PM writes...

@17 black_death: No, NIH dollars going to Harvard do not "subsidize faculty wine parties and jacuzzi renovations," neither do they fund the endowment. NIH grants go to faculty members to pay for research, and NIH is actually pretty careful to make sure that's where it goes. Even Harvard would not dare to endanger future funding by misusing grant money to fund parties or build its endowment. Harvard has built its endowment largely from private donations, although their reputation obviously gives them an advantage over most other universities in doing this.

It is certainly true that Harvard has a huge endowment, and you (and their faculty) might reasonably wish that they used more of it to fund research. But individual faculty members at Harvard are just as dependent upon external funding sources to support their research as faculty at any other major research institution. Little would be gained by punishing them and their research for the wealth of their employer.

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24. pete on October 17, 2011 2:34 PM writes...

@21 SteveM
quite the opposite - time to get pissed and climb out of our collective R&D misery here in the US. This program might just help in it's own small-ish way.

If you're worried about Asia's effect on US science jobs...well, SO AM I.

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25. black_death on October 17, 2011 2:55 PM writes...

@23 said- "Little would be gained by punishing them and their research for the wealth of their employer."

You can't separate Harvard's endowment from the university. The university should banned from receiving federal funds. Through direct and indirect costs the NIH dollars flow into the University which in turn uses them to further enrich the endowment. Harvard getting free money from the government is stomach churning. They don't need it. Any faux separation of these funds
is merely one further con on the American public.

The money should be sent to smaller, more deserving Universities. Or better yet, to fund University independent NIH research facilities.

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26. SteveM on October 17, 2011 3:37 PM writes...

Re: #22 Josh - Nah, I got out of Chemistry a long time ago to do mathematical modeling. It's actually a decent quant alternative to Chemistry for people looking to get out.

I just feel bad for the American technologists getting hammered by the Crony Capitalists and their oily Academic co-conspirators.

Incidentally, I know business managers who won't hire Harvard grads because their egos make them more trouble than they're worth.

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27. NKM on October 17, 2011 4:03 PM writes...

@21 SteveM:
Does being a "native born American" make you a better scientist or more likely to have a key scientfic insight? Are "Asian immigrants" especially more bothersome to you than other immigrants (your own ancestors included)? In case you haven't noticed, most people are Asian, but I don't think national origin provides any one group with a monopoly on talent nor idiocy, as the case may be.

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28. Ed on October 17, 2011 4:05 PM writes...

Gee, the useless financial crony capitalism sector must be running out of marks otherwise these fine mathematical masturbators (read conartists) wouldn't need such a dull scam to siphon loot from taxpayers.

Say, whatever happened to that quack outfit named The Santa Fe Institute? Aren't they the poster boy of interdisciplinary nothingness?

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29. SteveM on October 17, 2011 4:14 PM writes...

Re: 27 NKM. "Does being a "native born American" make you a better scientist or more likely to have a key scientfic insight?"

Given the numbers of Americans kicked to the curb for immigrant replacements, apparently it makes you a worse scientist.

But meh...time to toss out the ol' "racist" implication red herring. I.e., A rational observation about objective supply and demand is racist.

Even though we're in a huge recession, thousands of scientists are pounding the pavement and real unemployment is pushing 20%.

You figure it out...

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30. Ed on October 17, 2011 4:17 PM writes...

Environmental catastrophe + peasant labor wages + currency peg + >50% unreproducible papers + etc etc obviously equates to talent.

Ponzi Finance works best with a disposable mass of humanity and no rules.

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31. Andy on October 17, 2011 5:52 PM writes...

Harvard has also managed to enormously set back innovation in cancer research though their egregiously broad "oncomouse" patent that covers any genetic manipulation in any mammalian species (except humans) that affects cancer.

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32. trrll on October 17, 2011 7:04 PM writes...

@25 black_death. No, grant funds do not flow into some general pool that Harvard can divert into it's endowment. They are what is known as "restricted" funds, which means that they can only be used to fund the proposed research. Like all universities, Harvard gets a cut to pay for overhead, but not even Harvard can get overhead substantially greater than other universities, and all have to justify it as being reasonable to defray costs of building maintenance, administrative support, etc.

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33. Another@SteveM on October 17, 2011 8:01 PM writes...

Dude, the "yellow peril" propaganda is sooo last century. Are we to assume that your "rational observations" would connote the same disdain if European immigrants were also displacing native-born scientists? Oh wait, they ARE...just look at the scientist roster at any Big Pharma in Boston or San Francisco.

Rather than try to hold back the onslaught of barbarian laborers, perhaps we native-born Americans should endeavor to obtain MBAs, JDs, MDs, or any other degree (preferably from Harvard) that can grant us higher socio-economic status than bench scientists and the rest of the Proles.

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34. SteveM on October 17, 2011 8:11 PM writes...

Re: Another@SteveM

Cryptic. What exactly is your point?

If indeed you have one...

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35. anon on October 17, 2011 8:37 PM writes...

33: Considering that the previous president and his wall street cronies (mostly Harvard MBA's) wrecked our economy and the current president (a Harvard lawyer) can't seem to resuscitate it, is it wise to expect that Harvard MD's and PhD scientists will find feasible cures for diseases?

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36. Another2@SteveM on October 18, 2011 1:15 AM writes...

Re: @21&@26_SteveM
"Nah, I got out of Chemistry a long time ago to do mathematical modeling"

Hah, poor SteveM, would you like to share some of your "great" experience on how in/competence you’re compared to your Asian colleagues in both Chemistry and Mathematical Modeling?!

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37. black_death on October 18, 2011 11:28 AM writes...

@32 -

I think it amusing that you believe Harvard's accounting gimmick allows them to claim poverty.

You, like most elitists think you can blow hot air and have others take it as gospel truth.

Harvard's endowment scam is akin to someone deep in debt asserting that their multi-million dollar personal bank account can't be touched by creditors because they'd hoped to use it to buy
a beach front home in Maui.

It's that absurd.

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38. black_death on October 18, 2011 11:30 AM writes...

@32 -

I think it amusing that you believe Harvard's accounting gimmick allows them to claim poverty.

You, like most elitists think you can blow hot air and have others take it as gospel truth.

Harvard's endowment scam is akin to someone deep in debt asserting that their multi-million dollar personal bank account can't be touched by creditors because they'd hoped to use it to buy
a beach front home in Maui.

It's that absurd.

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39. trrll on October 19, 2011 3:07 PM writes...

@38 black_death

Who says that Harvard is claiming poverty? That's pretty silly, don't you think?

Perhaps you don't understand that NIH grant awards are not welfare. There is no "means test." NIH grant funds are provided to defray the actual costs associated with doing the specific studies proposed, without regard for the supposed wealth or poverty of the university that the principal investigator works for. And if the money is used for anything else than carrying out the approved studies, the investigator (and possibly the university) is at risk of becoming ineligible to receive grant support.

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40. Drug_Design on October 20, 2011 12:48 PM writes...

Good, because Phamra sure isn't up to the task. It seems drugs really are for the academy to invent.

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41. black_death on October 23, 2011 4:23 PM writes...

Looks like Harvard is going to have to start paying taxes on that endowment. It's clear to everyone the institution is just a front for a hedge fund.

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