There's a paper out in Drug Discovery Today with the title "Is Poor Research the Cause of Declining Productivity in the Drug Industry? After reviewing the literature on phenotypic versus target-based drug discovery, the author (Frank Sams-Dodd) asks (and has asked before):
The consensus of these studies is that drug discovery based on the target-based approach is less likely to result in an approved drug compared to projects based on the physiological- based approach. However, from a theoretical and scientific perspective, the target-based approach appears sound, so why is it not more successful?
He makes the points that the target-based approach has the advantages of (1) seeming more rational and scientific to its practitioners, especially in light of the advances in molecular biology over the last 25 years, and (2) seeming more rational and scientific to the investors:
". . .it presents drug discovery as a rational, systematic process, where the researcher is in charge and where it is possible to screen thousands of compounds every week. It gives the image of industrialisation of applied medical research. By contrast, the physiology-based approach is based on the screening of compounds in often rather complex systems with a low throughput and without a specific theory on how the drugs should act. In a commercial enterprise with investors and share-holders demanding a fast return on investment it is natural that the drug discovery efforts will drift towards the target-based approach, because it is so much easier to explain the process to others and because it is possible to make nice diagrams of the large numbers of compounds being screened.
This is the "Brute Force bias". And he goes on to another key observation: that this industrialization (or apparent industrialization) meant that there were a number of processes that could be (in theory) optimized. Anyone who's been close to a business degree knows how dear process optimization is to the heart of many management theorists, consultants, and so on. And there's something to that, if you're talking about a defined process like, say, assembling pickup trucks or packaging cat litter. This is where your six-sigma folks come in, your Pareto analysis, your Continuous Improvement people, and all the others. All these things are predicated on the idea that there is a Process out there.
See if this might sound familiar to anyone:
". . .the drug dis- covery paradigm used by the pharmaceutical industry changed from a disease-focus to a process-focus, that is, the implementation and organisation of the drug discovery process. This meant that process-arguments became very important, often to the point where they had priority over scientific considerations, and in many companies it became a requirement that projects could conform to this process to be accepted. Therefore, what started as a very sensible approach to drug discovery ended up becoming the requirement that all drug dis- covery programmes had to conform to this approach – independently of whether or not sufficient information was available to select a good target. This led to dogmatic approaches to drug discovery and a culture developed, where new projects must be presented in a certain manner, that is, the target, mode-of-action, tar- get-validation and screening cascade, and where the clinical manifestation of the disease and the biological basis of the disease at systems-level, that is, the entire organism, were deliberately left out of the process, because of its complexity and variability.
But are we asking too much when we declare that our drugs need to work through single defined targets? Beyond that, are we even asking too much when we declare that we need to understand the details of how they work at all? Many of you will have had such thoughts (and they've been expressed around here as well), but they can tend to sound heretical, especially that second one. But that gets to the real issue, the uncomfortable, foot-shuffling, rather-think-about-something-else question: are we trying to understand things, or are we trying to find drugs?
"False dichotomy!", I can hear people shouting. "We're trying to do both! Understanding how things work is the best way to find drugs!" In the abstract, I agree. But given the amount there is to understand, I think we need to be open to pushing ahead with things that look valuable, even if we're not sure why they do what they do. There were, after all, plenty of drugs discovered in just that fashion. A relentless target-based environment, though, keeps you from finding these things at all.
What it does do, though, is provide vast opportunities for keeping everyone busy. And not just "busy" in the sense of working on trivia, either: working out biological mechanisms is very, very hard, and in no area (despite decades of beavering away) can we say we've reached the end and achieved anything like a complete picture. There are plenty of areas that can and will soak up all the time and effort you can throw at them, and yield precious little in the way of drugs at the end of it. But everyone was working hard, doing good science, and doing what looked like the right thing.
This new paper spends quite a bit of time on the mode-of-action question. It makes the point that understanding the MoA is something that we've imposed on drug discovery, not an intrinsic part of it. I've gotten some funny looks over the years when I've told people that there is no FDA requirement for details of a drug's mechanism. I'm sure it helps, but in the end, it's efficacy and safety that carry the day, and both of those are determined empirically: did the people in the clinical trials get better, or worse?
And as for those times when we do have mode-of-action information, well, here are some fighting words for you:
". . .the ‘evidence’ usually involves schematic drawings and flow-diagrams of receptor complexes involving the target. How- ever, it is almost never understood how changes at the receptor or cellular level affect the phy- siology of the organism or interfere with the actual disease process. Also, interactions between components at the receptor level are known to be exceedingly complex, but a simple set of diagrams and arrows are often accepted as validation for the target and its role in disease treatment even though the true interactions are never understood. What this in real life boils down to is that we for almost all drug discovery programmes only have minimal insight into the mode-of-action of a drug and the biological basis of a disease, meaning that our choices are essentially pure guess-work.
I might add at this point that the emphasis on defined targets and mode of action has been so much a part of drug discovery in recent times that it's convinced many outside observers that target ID is really all there is to it. Finding and defining the molecular target is seen as the key step in the whole process; everything past that is just some minor engineering (and marketing, naturally). That fact that this point of view is a load of fertilizer has not slowed it down much.
I think that if one were to extract a key section from this whole paper, though, this one would be a good candidate:
". . .it is not the target-based approach itself that is flawed, but that the focus has shifted from disease to process. This has given the target-based approach a dogmatic status such that the steps of the validation process are often conducted in a highly ritualised manner without proper scientific analysis and questioning whether the target-based approach is optimal for the project in question.
That's one of those "Don't take this in the wrong way, but. . ." statements, which are, naturally, always going to be taken in just that wrong way. But how many people can deny that there's something to it? Almost no one denies that there's something not quite right, with plenty of room for improvement.
What Sams-Dodd has in mind for improvement is a shift towards looking at diseases, rather than targets or mechanisms. For many people, that's going to be one of those "Speak English, man!" moments, because for them, finding targets is looking at diseases. But that's not necessarily so. We would have to turn some things on their heads a bit, though:
In recent years there have been considerable advances in the use of automated processes for cell-culture work, automated imaging systems for in vivo models and complex cellular systems, among others, and these developments are making it increasingly possible to combine the process-strengths of the target-based approach with the disease-focus of the physiology-based approach, but again these technologies must be adapted to the research question, not the other way around.
One big question is whether the investors funding our work will put up with such a change, or with such an environment even if we did establish it. And that gets back to the discussion of Andrew Lo's securitization idea, the talk around here about private versus public financing, and many other topics. Those I'll reserve for another post. . .