I wanted to return to that Nature Reviews Drug Discovery article I blogged about the other day. There's one reason the authors advance for our problems that I thought was particularly well stated: what they call the "basic research/brute force" bias.
The ‘basic research–brute force’ bias is the tendency to overestimate the ability of advances in basic research (particularly in molecular biology) and brute force screening methods (embodied in the first few steps of the standard discovery and preclinical research process) to increase the probability that a molecule will be safe and effective in clinical trials. We suspect that this has been the intellectual basis for a move away from older and perhaps more productive methods for identifying drug candidates. . .
I think that this is definitely a problem, and it's a habit of thinking that almost everyone in the drug research business has, to some extent. The evidence that there's something lacking has been piling up. As the authors say, given all the advances over the past thirty years or so, we really should have seen more of an effect in the signal/noise of clinical trials: we should have had higher success rates in Phase II and Phase III as we understood more about what was going on. But that hasn't happened.
So how can some parts of a process improve dramatically, yet important measures of overall performance remain flat or decline? There are several possible explanations, but it seems reasonable to wonder whether companies industrialized the wrong set of activities. At first sight, R&D was more efficient several decades ago , when many research activities that are today regarded as critical (for example, the derivation of genomics-based drug targets and HTS) had not been invented, and when other activities (for example, clinical science, animal-based screens and iterative medicinal chemistry) dominated.
This gets us back to a topic that's come up around here several times: whether the entire target-based molecular-biology-driven style of drug discovery (which has been the norm since roughly the early 1980s) has been a dead end. Personally, I tend to think of it in terms of hubris and nemesis. We convinced ourselves that were were smarter than we really were.
The NRDD piece has several reasons for this development, which also ring true. Even in the 1980s, there were fears that the pace of drug discovery was slowing. and a new approach was welcome. A second reason is a really huge one: biology itself has been on a reductionist binge for a long time now. And why not? The entire idea of molecular biology has been incredibly fruitful. But we may be asking more of it than it can deliver.
. . .the ‘basic research–brute force’ bias matched the scientific zeitgeist, particularly as the older approaches for early-stage drug R&D seemed to be yielding less. What might be called 'molecular reductionism' has become the dominant stream in biology in general, and not just in the drug industry. "Since the 1970s, nearly all avenues of biomedical research have led to the gene". Genetics and molecular biology are seen as providing the 'best' and most fundamental ways of understanding biological systems, and subsequently intervening in them. The intellectual challenges of reductionism and its necessary synthesis (the '-omics') appear to be more attractive to many biomedical scientists than the messy empiricism of the older approaches.
And a final reason for this mode of research taking over - and it's another big one - is that it matched the worldview of many managers and investors. This all looked like putting R&D on a more scientific, more industrial, and more manageable footing. Why wouldn't managers be attracted to something that looked like it valued their skills? And why wouldn't investors be attracted to something that looked as if it could deliver more predictable success and more consistent earnings? R&D will give you gray hairs; anything that looks like taming it will find an audience.
And that's how we find ourselves here:
. . .much of the pharmaceutical industry's R&D is now based on the idea that high-affinity binding to a single biological target linked to a diseases will lead to medical benefit in humans. However, if the causal link between single targets and disease states is weaker than commonly thought, or if drugs rarely act on a single target, one can understand why the molecules that have been delivered by this research strategy into clinical development may not necessarily be more likely to succeed than those in earlier periods.
That first sentence is a bit terrifying. You read it, and part of you thinks "Well, yeah, of course", because that is such a fundamental assumption of almost all our work. But what if it's wrong? Or just not right enough?