About this Author
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

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« AstraZeneca Shakeup | Main | Blog Syn: An Idea Whose Time Has Come? »

January 16, 2013

Drug Discovery With the Most Common Words

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

I got caught up this morning in a challenge based on this XKCD strip, the famous "Up-Goer Five". If that doesn't ring a bell, have a look - it's an attempt to describe a Saturn V rocket while using only the most common 1000 words in English. You find, when you do that, that some of the words you really want to be able to use are not on the list - in the case of the Saturn V, "rocket" is probably the first obstacle of that sort you run into, thus "Up-Goer".

So I noticed on Twitter that people are trying to describe their own work using the same vocabulary list, and I thought I'd give it a try. (Here's a handy text editor that will tell you when you've stepped off the path). I quickly found that "lab", "chemical", "test", and "medicine" are not on the list, so there was enough of a challenge to keep me entertained. Here, then, is drug discovery and development, using the simple word list:

I find things that people take to get better when they are sick. These are hard to make, and take a lot of time and money. When we have a new idea, most of them don't actually work, because we don't know everything we need to about how people get sick in the first place. It's like trying to fix something huge, in the dark, without a book to help.

So we have to try over and over, and we often get surprised by what happens. We build our new stuff by making its parts bigger or smaller, or we join a new piece to one end, or we change one part out for another to see if it works better. Some of our new things are not strong enough. Others break down too fast or stay in the body too long, and some would do too many other things to the people who take them (and maybe even make them more sick than they were). To try to fix all of these at the same time is not easy, of course. When we think we've found one, it has to get past all of those problems, and then we have to be able to make a lot of it exactly the same way every time so that we can go to the next part.

And that part is where most of the money and time come in. First, we try our best idea out on a small animal to make sure that it works like we think it will. Only after that we can ask people to take it. First people who are not sick try it, just to make sure, then a few sick ones, then a lot of sick ones of many types. Then, if it still works, we take all our numbers and ask if it is all right to let everyone who is sick buy our new stuff, and to let a doctor tell them to take it.

If they say yes, we have to do well with it as fast as we can, which doesn't always work out, either. That's because there can still be a problem even after all that work. Even if there isn't, after some time (more than a year or two) someone else can let these people buy it, too, and for less. While all that is going on, we are back trying to find another new one before this one runs out, and we had better.

Not everyone likes us. Our stuff can be a lot of money for people. It may not work as well as someone wants it to, or they may not like how we talk with their doctor (and they may have a point there). Even so, many people have no idea of what we do, how hard it is, or how long it can take. But no one has got any other way to do it, at least not yet!

There, that's fairly accurate, and it even manages to sound like me in some parts. Pity there's no Latin on the list, though.

Update: here are some more people describing their work, in the comments over at Just Like Cooking. And I should note that someone has already remarked to me that "This is an explanation that even Marcia Angell could understand".

Comments (32) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Drug Development


1. Wheels17 on January 16, 2013 9:41 AM writes...

Nicely done!

Permalink to Comment

2. Devil's advocate on January 16, 2013 9:55 AM writes...

'But no one has got any other way to do it, at least not yet!'

Here's another way: 'If people took care of themselves better, they might not get sick so much.'

Permalink to Comment

3. JMS6147 on January 16, 2013 10:01 AM writes...

I love it! It's "Drug Discovery for Dummies"

Permalink to Comment

4. Rafael Najmanovich on January 16, 2013 10:08 AM writes...

you did an good job to explain the entire way to build these things that make people feel better. The only part that is missing is to explain how hard it is to decide the piece that needs to be fixed. This is not needed in many cases but without knowing it, it is harder to make people accept it.

Permalink to Comment

5. Hap on January 16, 2013 10:14 AM writes...

It can't be right - there aren't enough curse words.

Also, you can't make the willfully/profitably stupid think, so the explanation won't work on Ms. Angell.

Permalink to Comment

6. Akshat Rathi on January 16, 2013 10:25 AM writes...

Here is what I did in my PhD:

At the big boy's school I worked on making really, really tiny things that can help many people not be sick. To do that we spent days reading books and learning how to add smaller bits together, one by one, to make the whole tiny thing. But because these bits or even the tiny thing can not be held in hands, or seen by eyes, we had to do them in ways that would allow us to understand if we were doing it right.

Because the tiny thing I was making was hard to make, I had two other people working on it with me. We talked and helped each other to come up with a way to make the tiny thing after three years of trying very hard. We made most of it, but some bits remain on which one person is still working.

After my work was done I wrote a book on it. Now I the big boys have read the book and they will ask me hard questions. If I answer them then they will give me a note which will help me go out in the world and get a job that will pay me money and let me do what I want to do.

Permalink to Comment

7. John Schilling on January 16, 2013 10:58 AM writes...

Nicely done. But I'm still holding out for the "Uncleftish Beholding" text editor that only accepts words of Anglo-Saxon origin.

Permalink to Comment

8. RB Woodweird on January 16, 2013 11:02 AM writes...

You make it sound so easy. Why should I pay you so much to do it?

Permalink to Comment

9. eugene on January 16, 2013 11:20 AM writes...

Nice Derek. You're drug research's Hemingway.

Permalink to Comment

10. Derek Lowe on January 16, 2013 11:54 AM writes...

#7, John

That would be fine by me. I use a *lot* of Anglo-Saxon derived words when I'm working at the bench!

Permalink to Comment

11. lynn on January 16, 2013 12:19 PM writes...

Here's my job these days: I work with people to help them understand and fix problems in the ways they try to find new things that stop people from being sick. I am most interested in stopping the "being-sick" that comes from very small tiny tiny animals that get into people's bodies.

Permalink to Comment

12. a. nonymaus on January 16, 2013 12:49 PM writes...

In defence of jargon -
This exercise creates the impression of communication without conveying the substance. Since most of us have a chemistry background, we can fill in the gaps and ambiguities created by being denied a rich vocabulary. However, baking a mol of molecules is fundamentally different from assembling a box of clocks and without words to convey this context, a very wrong impression of the difficulties and necessary strategies is given. This may be reflected in issues in the industry correlated with executives lacking domain expertise.

Permalink to Comment

13. Jack klugman as juror number 5 on January 16, 2013 12:56 PM writes...

In reality isn't this database of 1000 words two to three times the size of the average Americans lexicon. Job descriptions are still too complicated for most. has to be like the instructions on a bottle of shampoo...Apply, rinse, repeat. May have to tell them when to stop.

Permalink to Comment

14. Anonymous on January 16, 2013 1:18 PM writes...

Awesome. My grandmother would have understood which is the best possible test of clarity

Permalink to Comment

15. Direct Arylator on January 16, 2013 1:28 PM writes...

"...and then we have to be able to make a lot of it exactly the same way every time so that we can go to the next part." -Five paragraphs and chemical development gets only one sentence. :( Sadly, I don't think it deserves too much more in the grand scheme of things. Kinda depressing for a process chemist!

Permalink to Comment

16. Anonymous on January 16, 2013 1:42 PM writes...

I work at a small drug discovery company. This is pretty much the language you have to use when discussing things with the board (of venture capitalists). Ugh. And you wonder why we fail.

Permalink to Comment

17. LeeH on January 16, 2013 2:17 PM writes...

I propose that all Powerpoint slides be written in this format. Perhaps it would cancel the Tufte "Powerpoint makes you stupid" effect.

Permalink to Comment

18. Joker on January 16, 2013 2:36 PM writes...

Nicely done. Now try it without using the letter "e"!

Permalink to Comment

19. Derek Lowe on January 16, 2013 2:59 PM writes...

#18 Joker:

Hah! If "Gadsby" could be written that way, and Perec's " La disparition", then I'll bet I could crank out a few blog posts. What weirds me out is that the Perec book has been translated into several other languages, and into English more than once (!)

Another brain-twisting way to write is to not use any form of "to be" (look up "E-Prime"). I can do that for short stretches, but I'm not sure if anyone's ever been crazy enough to try to write a novel that way. . .

Permalink to Comment

20. Anonymous on January 16, 2013 3:10 PM writes...

Outsourcing on the personal level:

Permalink to Comment

21. BioBritSD on January 16, 2013 4:34 PM writes...

Wow, this is hard, nice job Derek.

Here is my attempt.....

I help people use their number-boxes to find more tiny things. The tiny things could be to make sick people better, or to make stuff stick together better, or to make things that smell nice, or make your hands soft, or do more with the black stuff that comes out of the ground and is made from dead animals.

I help people draw pictures of their tiny things
I help people write down how they made their tiny things in the number-box
I help people think what new tiny things to make next

Permalink to Comment

22. John Schilling on January 16, 2013 5:07 PM writes...

OK, possibly this is cheating, but both Randall and Derek did make my job at least somewhat easier to describe:

I help make things like the Up-Goer Five, only smaller. They don't go other worlds, but go around this world very high and very fast. From up high, people can see and talk very far, which is good. But it is not safe, so more often we send computer things to see and talk far for us. And it is very hard, so tens of hundreds of people have to work together to do this. They have to spend as much money as it would take to buy a hundred hundred cars.

My job is to watch people make the parts with the fire, and tell them how to do it better. The fire should go out the back, and it should go very fast. If they do it wrong, I can help them fix it. Sometimes I can help them spend less money. And when the little up-goer goes up, I watch very close. Sometimes a part will break while it goes up, but we can still fix it. Sometimes a part will break and we can't fix it. The up-goer might fall down, or it might get lost. Once I helped a broken little up-goer find its way after it was lost for a year.

Also, I work with things the head write-guy here won't work with. And I still have all my parts.

Permalink to Comment

23. Chemjobber on January 16, 2013 5:13 PM writes...

Bravo, @22 -- well done!

Permalink to Comment

24. RB on January 16, 2013 6:58 PM writes...

How about the words of Robert Bridges, the British Poet Laureate a century ago:

I too will something make
And joy in the making;
Altho' tomorrow it seem
Like the empty words of a dream
Remembered on waking.

Permalink to Comment

25. Anonymous on January 16, 2013 9:26 PM writes...

Here's mine: My job is about to go away. I will be lost with no money. Life sucks.

(Turns out "sucks" is one of the most common 1000 words. Who knew?........Okay, well who didn't know.)

Permalink to Comment

26. love it on January 17, 2013 6:43 AM writes...

Anybody want to have a go at writing their boss's boss's boss's job with this thing? :)

Permalink to Comment

27. henry's cat on January 17, 2013 12:13 PM writes...

The place I work at also tries to make money from making small things that make people and animals better. You would think the place I work at would like all people but this is not the case. In fact the people that work for the place I work at feel worse than the animals that live at the place I work. This is because they keep losing their jobs as the place I work eats smaller places where people that make little things to make people better work.

We all get put together in one big not so happy family and wait for someone to tell some of us that we are not part of the family any more. The big not so happy family keeps feeling really sad and don't really want to make the little things that make people and animals feel better.

A lot of the family don't know why we have to lose people this way, but we keep getting told that other people that are not in the family who have a lot of money and own part of the family without being in it want to make even more money than we are already making.

Sometimes I would like to be one of the animals that live at the place that I work because at least they get all the food that they want, until that is, one of the family comes along and kills them. At least they have an escape plan.

Permalink to Comment

28. Doug Steinman on January 17, 2013 12:54 PM writes...

Great post! Great comments too! As a related note, I read recently about an effort to describe what time is in a way that a child could understand it. I haven't tried that one yet but it is a very interesting challenge. At least it would take my mind away from fiscal issues and gun control.

Permalink to Comment

29. Anonymous on January 17, 2013 1:04 PM writes...

#19 Derek

A quick Google search reveals that yes, apparently there have been people crazy enough to write novels in E-Prime. David Gerrold (The same guy behind the Trouble with Tribbles) wrote two SF novels in it.

Permalink to Comment

30. D.J. on January 17, 2013 3:56 PM writes...

I help people figure out how much money they have to give to the people who get money for the people who run things, and then help them tell the people who get money for the people who run things how much money they have to give them. This is very hard for a lot of people, since there are lots of ways to be wrong, and then the people get money for the people who run things are very angry. A lot of the ways people can be wrong that I deal with have broken families. Most times, they gave more money than they had to, so the people who run things give money back. Then the people are happy. Some times, they have to give more money than they already gave. Then they get angry. If the people who get money for the people who run things are angry about what people told them before, and send the people an angry letter, I help people figure out what the right way to answer the letter is. Sometimes, they get more money back from the people who get money for the people who run things. Sometimes they have to give a lot more money back to the people who get money for the people who run things.

Permalink to Comment

31. Anonymous on January 20, 2013 11:28 AM writes...

I make stuff that people will take when they get sick. My job is to make sure it really gets into your body so that you can feel better, or else it won't work. We fix lots of little things and sometimes it still does not work. We give the stuff to cells and animals before we give it to people who are sick.

Permalink to Comment

32. Nick - Editor on January 26, 2013 7:08 AM writes...

You can use the StyleWriter editing software to show all words outside the easy range in writing. This is just one feature in the program. Try it - there's a free download on the web. You'll see it helps you keep your writing clear and readable.

Permalink to Comment


Remember Me?


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

The Last Post
The GSK Layoffs Continue, By Proxy
The Move is Nigh
Another Alzheimer's IPO
Cutbacks at C&E News
Sanofi Pays to Get Back Into Oncology
An Irresponsible Statement About Curing Cancer
Oliver Sacks on Turning Back to Chemistry