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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: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

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« A Beta-Secretase Inhibitor Hits the Skids in Alzheimer's | Main | Making Changes Inside Merck's R&D »

June 14, 2013

One. . .Million. . .Pounds (For a New Antibiotic?)

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Posted by Derek

Via Stuart Cantrill on Twitter, I see that UK Prime Minister David Cameron is prepared to announce a prize for anyone who can "identify and solve the biggest problem of our time". He's leaving that open, and his examples are apparently ". . .the next penicillin, aeroplane or world wide web".

I like the idea of prizes for research and invention. The thing is, the person who invents the next airplane or World Wide Web will probably do pretty well off it through the normal mechanisms. And it's worth thinking about the very, very different pathways these three inventions took, both in their discovery and their development. While thinking about that, keep in mind the difference between those two.

The Wright's first powered airplane, a huge step in human technology, was good for carrying one person (lying prone) for a few hundred yards in a good wind. Tim Berners-Lee's first Web page, another huge step, was a brief bit of code on one server at CERN, and mostly told people about itself. Penicillin, in its early days, was famously so rare that the urine of the earliest patients was collected and extracted in order not to waste any of the excreted drug. And even that was a long way from Fleming's keen-eyed discovery of the mold's antibacterial activity. A more vivid example than penicillin of the need for huge amounts of development from an early discovery is hard to find.

And how does one assign credit to the winner? Many (most) of these discoveries take a lot of people to realize them - certainly, by the time it's clear that they're great discoveries. Alexander Fleming (very properly) gets a lot of credit for the initial discovery of penicillin, but if the world had depended on him for its supply, it would have been very much out of luck. He had a very hard time getting anything going for nearly ten years after the initial discovery, and not for lack of trying. The phrase "Without Fleming, no Chain; without Chain, no Florey; without Florey, no Heatley; without Heatley, no penicillin" properly assigns credit to a lot of scientists that most people have never heard of.

Those are all points worth thinking about, if you're thinking about Cameron's prize, or if you're David Cameron. But that's not all. Here's the real kicker: he's offering one million pounds for it ($1.56 million as of this morning). This is delusional. The number of great discoveries that can be achieved for that sort of money is, I hate to say, rather small these days. A theoretical result in math or physics might certainly be accomplished in that range, but reducing it to practice is something else entirely. I can speak to the "next penicillin" part of the example, and I can say (without fear of contradiction from anyone who knows the tiniest bit about the subject) that a million pounds could not, under any circumstances, tell you if you had the next penicillin. That's off by a factor of a hundred, if you just want to take something as far as a solid start.

There's another problem with this amount: in general, anything that's worth that much is actually worth a lot more; there's no such thing as a great, world-altering discovery that's worth only a million pounds. I fear that this will be an ornament around the neck of whoever wins it, and little more. If Cameron's committee wants to really offer a prize in line with the worth of such a discovery, they should crank things up to a few hundred million pounds - at least - and see what happens. As it stands, the current idea is like me offering a twenty-dollar bill to anyone who brings me a bar of gold.

Comments (28) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events | Drug Industry History | Infectious Diseases | Who Discovers and Why


COMMENTS

1. Special Guest Lecturer on June 14, 2013 8:10 AM writes...

Did Cameron announce the amount of the prize in his best Dr. Evil voice, with pinky poised at the side of his mouth?

Permalink to Comment

2. Anony on June 14, 2013 8:18 AM writes...

Dang #1, you beat me to it! This is totally reminiscent of the scene in Austin Powers where Dr. Evil demands 1 million dollars prompting everyone to laugh at him.

Permalink to Comment

3. Andrew (@_byronmiller) on June 14, 2013 8:28 AM writes...

Yeah, make that three of us who went straight to Dr. Evil. And also to Number 2's response: a slightly worried sidelong glance followed by gentle correction.

Derek, I really like your discussion of the examples he gives and I think it illustrates the folly of this idea very well. It does make me wonder what you mean when you say you "like the idea of prizes for research and invention". Given your criticisms, what is there to like?

The idea of individual prizes for discoveries seems to be very much based on a 'great men' view of history: rather than recognising the complicated mess of people and institutions that produces scientific knowledge, it takes a significant discovery and looks back to cherry pick people as special. Sometimes this is valid, sure - but as you highlight, more often it does not. Important researchers who lay the groundwork, or have brilliant ideas who don't pan out, or are just unfortunate enough to be grad students rather than PIs, are all neglected by this process despite their vital roles in producing knowledge.

Like much of the rest of Cameron's vision for Britain, the idea of prizes like this is stuck in the 19th century. The only reason I don't view the Nobel prize as equally misguided is that it was actually set up at that time!

Permalink to Comment

4. zmil on June 14, 2013 8:35 AM writes...

@Andrew

"And also to Number 2's response: a slightly worried sidelong glance followed by gentle correction."

My mental image of Derek will wear an eye patch from this day forward.

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5. Old Cynic on June 14, 2013 10:52 AM writes...

43 Billion to bail out Royal Bank of Scotland, 1 million to discover a new antibiotic - that's the difference between a degree in PPE and a degree in chemistry for you...

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6. student on June 14, 2013 11:11 AM writes...

Wow, he thinks he can get an antibiotic for the size of a single-PI NIH RO1 Grant! HAHAHAHAHAHA!

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7. barry on June 14, 2013 11:14 AM writes...

The US Patent system was a great Enlightenment Era innovation. Rather than the occasional royal prize (e.g. for a chronometer that can determine longitude), the Market would provide incentives for innovation, by granting a period of exclusivity to the inventor (in exchange for educating his competitors).
PM Cameron now acknowledges what has been clear for some time--that the Market fails in the case of antibiotics. Because a novel antibiotic will be reserved (by any responsible govt) to the most dire cases, it won't get enough market share to ever recoup the costs of research/development. And of course once it's patented, pirates in Asia will start selling it indiscriminately. So resistance will arise anyway, but the inventor will not recoup his expenses.
It's a real problem. Cameron's is not a real answer.

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8. @SuperScienceGrl on June 14, 2013 11:50 AM writes...

Cameron is at best delusional... really though, I think this is yet another example of his paying lip service to science (a non-scientist may well skim over this news story and think he's being so nice and helpful to us), whilst knowing that £1m is peanuts from his budget. Next time anyone mentions science funding, he'll say "oh! But I gave a single scientist a million pounds". Good luck with him choosing one too. I hope he does it in a Britain's Got Talent-style contest, where he and Ann Widdecombe are the judges, and he makes the scientists dance and/or sing.

Permalink to Comment

9. simpl on June 14, 2013 12:34 PM writes...

If the money is available at an early stage, a million pounds could be helpful. As if Mr Cameron is hoping for the next silicon valley, and offering to build a garage.
I suggest that the biggest problems in his framework lie in the area of constructive enterprise within Europe: a single air traffic control system, a Eurocentric Visa/Mastercard replacement, a unified energy plan, large Data Servers under European control, a cheap, fast, internet-based education concept, emigration of production sites to areas lacking capital, to dig out the first few. My solution is to find a political group willing to roll up their sleeves: I'd even offer my share of the million to help them get started. Did he leave an email address?

Permalink to Comment

10. retron on June 14, 2013 12:48 PM writes...

I'm fine with the creation of prizes such as this, because it keeps science/technological challenges in the public eye. Ask a person on the street about antibiotics, and they will probably tell you this is a solved problem or ask you why should I care?

Cameron will get these issues some public air time, which all of us seem to want (see numerous blog posts about 'educating the public.' But when it actually happens, we pee on the spigot. Go figure.

Permalink to Comment

11. cynic on June 14, 2013 12:57 PM writes...

At risk of having to surrender my nom-de-plume, I admit I don't see cause for so much derision. Most of us wish we could win a Nobel Prize, but not for the cash award. We want the prestige of being recognized as having accomplished something really important that no one before us could. The size of the prize isn't meant to reimburse for the endeavor, it's to make the prize exclusive. Anyone could create and/or win a $20 prize, so there's no prestige in it. Million-pound prizes -no strings attached- are much, much tougher to come by. One can argue about what the optimum value to achieve this would be, and it looks like this prize needs some refinement (e.g., better guidance on what sort of discoveries are most valued, perhaps eligibility criteria) but I don't see a million pounds as an unreasonable prize size.

Permalink to Comment

12. Dr david Hill on June 14, 2013 1:29 PM writes...

This will never work as the gatekeepers and those in Whitehall have not a clue what a winning idea/invention is. Indeed when NESTA was first launched as the panacea for inventors in the UK the money had already been allocated. Therefore people were writing in, in the hope of getting some NESTA money, and it was already taken up by pet projects of those behind closed doors. We know this as one of our members was one of the first founding trustees of NESTA. Unfortunately politicians and Whitehall are never to be believed as behind closed doors the money is snapped up before any meaningful inventor has a chance. Cameron's reign will be no different.

Indeed since the NESTA has been in place over £1 billion of lottery and taxpayer's funds have gone through this moribund organization that could not tell a good thing from a bad thing. In all that time since 1997/98 has anything really big come out of the £1 billion+ spent? I have not heard anything and if NESTA had produced something exceptional we would have all have heard about it as they would be singing it from the rafters.


Unfortunately the big problem is those who are in charge of the system and that is usually civil servants with no innovative blood in their body or politicians who have got it so horribly wrong over decades for the people of the UK and that mentality will get us nowhere with this initiative either – other go to things that will produce little. Therefore there is no chance that anything meaningful development will come out of this. Mark my words and it will be the same as history has recorded from past attempts because those with the real world beating ideas never get a chance.

Dr David Hill
World Innovation Foundation

Permalink to Comment

13. Dr david Hill on June 14, 2013 1:29 PM writes...

This will never work as the gatekeepers and those in Whitehall have not a clue what a winning idea/invention is. Indeed when NESTA was first launched as the panacea for inventors in the UK the money had already been allocated. Therefore people were writing in, in the hope of getting some NESTA money, and it was already taken up by pet projects of those behind closed doors. We know this as one of our members was one of the first founding trustees of NESTA. Unfortunately politicians and Whitehall are never to be believed as behind closed doors the money is snapped up before any meaningful inventor has a chance. Cameron's reign will be no different.

Indeed since the NESTA has been in place over £1 billion of lottery and taxpayer's funds have gone through this moribund organization that could not tell a good thing from a bad thing. In all that time since 1997/98 has anything really big come out of the £1 billion+ spent? I have not heard anything and if NESTA had produced something exceptional we would have all have heard about it as they would be singing it from the rafters.


Unfortunately the big problem is those who are in charge of the system and that is usually civil servants with no innovative blood in their body or politicians who have got it so horribly wrong over decades for the people of the UK and that mentality will get us nowhere with this initiative either – other go to things that will produce little. Therefore there is no chance that anything meaningful development will come out of this. Mark my words and it will be the same as history has recorded from past attempts because those with the real world beating ideas never get a chance.

Dr David Hill
World Innovation Foundation

Permalink to Comment

14. Dr david Hill on June 14, 2013 1:30 PM writes...

This will never work as the gatekeepers and those in Whitehall have not a clue what a winning idea/invention is. Indeed when NESTA was first launched as the panacea for inventors in the UK the money had already been allocated. Therefore people were writing in, in the hope of getting some NESTA money, and it was already taken up by pet projects of those behind closed doors. We know this as one of our members was one of the first founding trustees of NESTA. Unfortunately politicians and Whitehall are never to be believed as behind closed doors the money is snapped up before any meaningful inventor has a chance. Cameron's reign will be no different.

Indeed since the NESTA has been in place over £1 billion of lottery and taxpayer's funds have gone through this moribund organization that could not tell a good thing from a bad thing. In all that time since 1997/98 has anything really big come out of the £1 billion+ spent? I have not heard anything and if NESTA had produced something exceptional we would have all have heard about it as they would be singing it from the rafters.


Unfortunately the big problem is those who are in charge of the system and that is usually civil servants with no innovative blood in their body or politicians who have got it so horribly wrong over decades for the people of the UK and that mentality will get us nowhere with this initiative either – other go to things that will produce little. Therefore there is no chance that anything meaningful development will come out of this. Mark my words and it will be the same as history has recorded from past attempts because those with the real world beating ideas never get a chance.

Dr David Hill
World Innovation Foundation

Permalink to Comment

15. Dr david Hill on June 14, 2013 1:30 PM writes...

This will never work as the gatekeepers and those in Whitehall have not a clue what a winning idea/invention is. Indeed when NESTA was first launched as the panacea for inventors in the UK the money had already been allocated. Therefore people were writing in, in the hope of getting some NESTA money, and it was already taken up by pet projects of those behind closed doors. We know this as one of our members was one of the first founding trustees of NESTA. Unfortunately politicians and Whitehall are never to be believed as behind closed doors the money is snapped up before any meaningful inventor has a chance. Cameron's reign will be no different.

Indeed since the NESTA has been in place over £1 billion of lottery and taxpayer's funds have gone through this moribund organization that could not tell a good thing from a bad thing. In all that time since 1997/98 has anything really big come out of the £1 billion+ spent? I have not heard anything and if NESTA had produced something exceptional we would have all have heard about it as they would be singing it from the rafters.


Unfortunately the big problem is those who are in charge of the system and that is usually civil servants with no innovative blood in their body or politicians who have got it so horribly wrong over decades for the people of the UK and that mentality will get us nowhere with this initiative either – other go to things that will produce little. Therefore there is no chance that anything meaningful development will come out of this. Mark my words and it will be the same as history has recorded from past attempts because those with the real world beating ideas never get a chance.

Dr David Hill
World Innovation Foundation

Permalink to Comment

16. Dr david Hill on June 14, 2013 1:30 PM writes...

This will never work as the gatekeepers and those in Whitehall have not a clue what a winning idea/invention is. Indeed when NESTA was first launched as the panacea for inventors in the UK the money had already been allocated. Therefore people were writing in, in the hope of getting some NESTA money, and it was already taken up by pet projects of those behind closed doors. We know this as one of our members was one of the first founding trustees of NESTA. Unfortunately politicians and Whitehall are never to be believed as behind closed doors the money is snapped up before any meaningful inventor has a chance. Cameron's reign will be no different.

Indeed since the NESTA has been in place over £1 billion of lottery and taxpayer's funds have gone through this moribund organization that could not tell a good thing from a bad thing. In all that time since 1997/98 has anything really big come out of the £1 billion+ spent? I have not heard anything and if NESTA had produced something exceptional we would have all have heard about it as they would be singing it from the rafters.


Unfortunately the big problem is those who are in charge of the system and that is usually civil servants with no innovative blood in their body or politicians who have got it so horribly wrong over decades for the people of the UK and that mentality will get us nowhere with this initiative either – other go to things that will produce little. Therefore there is no chance that anything meaningful development will come out of this. Mark my words and it will be the same as history has recorded from past attempts because those with the real world beating ideas never get a chance.

Dr David Hill
World Innovation Foundation

Permalink to Comment

17. Dr david Hill on June 14, 2013 1:30 PM writes...

This will never work as the gatekeepers and those in Whitehall have not a clue what a winning idea/invention is. Indeed when NESTA was first launched as the panacea for inventors in the UK the money had already been allocated. Therefore people were writing in, in the hope of getting some NESTA money, and it was already taken up by pet projects of those behind closed doors. We know this as one of our members was one of the first founding trustees of NESTA. Unfortunately politicians and Whitehall are never to be believed as behind closed doors the money is snapped up before any meaningful inventor has a chance. Cameron's reign will be no different.

Indeed since the NESTA has been in place over £1 billion of lottery and taxpayer's funds have gone through this moribund organization that could not tell a good thing from a bad thing. In all that time since 1997/98 has anything really big come out of the £1 billion+ spent? I have not heard anything and if NESTA had produced something exceptional we would have all have heard about it as they would be singing it from the rafters.


Unfortunately the big problem is those who are in charge of the system and that is usually civil servants with no innovative blood in their body or politicians who have got it so horribly wrong over decades for the people of the UK and that mentality will get us nowhere with this initiative either – other go to things that will produce little. Therefore there is no chance that anything meaningful development will come out of this. Mark my words and it will be the same as history has recorded from past attempts because those with the real world beating ideas never get a chance.

Dr David Hill
World Innovation Foundation

Permalink to Comment

18. Dr david Hill on June 14, 2013 1:30 PM writes...

This will never work as the gatekeepers and those in Whitehall have not a clue what a winning idea/invention is. Indeed when NESTA was first launched as the panacea for inventors in the UK the money had already been allocated. Therefore people were writing in, in the hope of getting some NESTA money, and it was already taken up by pet projects of those behind closed doors. We know this as one of our members was one of the first founding trustees of NESTA. Unfortunately politicians and Whitehall are never to be believed as behind closed doors the money is snapped up before any meaningful inventor has a chance. Cameron's reign will be no different.

Indeed since the NESTA has been in place over £1 billion of lottery and taxpayer's funds have gone through this moribund organization that could not tell a good thing from a bad thing. In all that time since 1997/98 has anything really big come out of the £1 billion+ spent? I have not heard anything and if NESTA had produced something exceptional we would have all have heard about it as they would be singing it from the rafters.


Unfortunately the big problem is those who are in charge of the system and that is usually civil servants with no innovative blood in their body or politicians who have got it so horribly wrong over decades for the people of the UK and that mentality will get us nowhere with this initiative either – other go to things that will produce little. Therefore there is no chance that anything meaningful development will come out of this. Mark my words and it will be the same as history has recorded from past attempts because those with the real world beating ideas never get a chance.

Dr David Hill
World Innovation Foundation

Permalink to Comment

19. Toad on June 14, 2013 1:50 PM writes...

Dr. Hill:

For future reference, hit the Post button once then go off to another page or tab, get some coffee, or go to the loo, but give it 5 min for the server to check for spam, bugs, etc. in your comment. It's part of what keeps Derek's blog comments relatively clean from crap. I know it seems annoying. Also, if your comment contains a url, it may need for Derek to accept it before it posts (Derek, you can correct me if I'm wrong on that).

Permalink to Comment

20. Sean on June 14, 2013 3:15 PM writes...

Hilarious. Better chance of getting an NIH grant even in sequestration. If he offered a few Billion pounds then I am sure he would have all the pharma's rushing to help him discover a drug and everyone else too..Look in the US the NIH offers a few hundred million to GSK (based on recent evidence) and they jump.

Permalink to Comment

21. terry on June 14, 2013 3:19 PM writes...

Yes, I agree with those commenters who think Cameron's idea is absurd. Many decades ago there was a (UK) Royal Commission on awards to inventors: some of those involved said that they were kept in suspense for ever. They couldn't depend on anything useful happening in any reasonable timeframe, and for one or two who did in the end get something, it was far too late to have any incentivising effect, even if it had been more than peanuts.

Permalink to Comment

22. Hap on June 14, 2013 4:54 PM writes...

@11: The problem, though, is the cost to develop a new antibiotic is so much more than the prize (without even factoring in the low probability of success) that if the prize is the sole drive for such an end, it won't work. Prestige will only make people happy for so long [in the (much cheaper) music business, a woman(?) whose music was consistently sampled titled one album "Sample Credits Don't Pay The Bills"], and it won't make shareholders happy at all. Money also doesn't necessarily buy prestige - in golf, there are lots of tournaments that have big payouts (FedEx Cup and the Players, for example), but the only tournaments whose winners people will remember other than the winners themselves are the majors. Money hasn't changed that.

In addition, big prizes aren't the sole reason or sole funding for what they reward. At least early on, people who won Nobel prizes weren't funded (either by governments or business), but probably most (if not all) in recent history are, and the grant sizes imply that it would probably take much more money than the prize level to fund the work. In addition, for at least some of the modern discoveries in the sciences, inventions directly derived from the discoveries were generated and patented (one example would be Grubbs catalyst) and used to make money. Without that motive, I don't think much will be done.

Antibiotics seem to be an area where financial incentives for development don't work, so trying something new is necessary. Unfortunately, the development costs are the roadblock, and since this doesn't help with those, I'm not certain why I would think it will work.

Permalink to Comment

23. srp on June 14, 2013 7:55 PM writes...

I think #9 had a point. If you give the prize for a good lead or some other early-stage result, it might be of some modest value. Otherwise, it's just a credible signal that the government and society actually care about this and will grant social approbation to a discoverer. Promising a noble title would probably be at least as powerful an incentive in the UK.

Permalink to Comment

24. newnickname on June 15, 2013 8:03 PM writes...

Kennedy's Man to the Moon: 1961; +, 1969
Nixon's War on Cancer: 1971; -
Clinton's HIV Vaccine: 1997; -

One million dollars wouldn't cover the cost of waste disposal from a successful (FDA approved) small molecule drug discovery project.

Kennedy had it right. We should try to cure cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's and Infectious Disease on the moon.

My submission / proposal to win the Cameron Longitude Prize: "Politicians should get a clue or butt out."

Permalink to Comment

25. Anonymous on June 15, 2013 8:54 PM writes...

I wish someone would develop a prize for a new useful and innovative antibiotic (new class, effective vs extremely drug resistant bacteria, reasonable safety profile, reasonable ADME, producible in commercial quantities). $10 billion sounds about right for something with these characteristics. Unfortunately the politicians are going to realize we need something like this only after a global epidemic has begun.

Permalink to Comment

26. sepisp on June 17, 2013 2:22 AM writes...

There are a surprising number of people who have tried to outdo the Nobel prize. This yet another. Fittingly, no one has actually heard of them.

That being said, if the prize goes to a scientist that would get no reward for it otherwise, then it's good. But, I think more science could be achieved just by distributing the £1 million as grants to doctoral students.

Permalink to Comment

27. Jake on June 20, 2013 1:27 PM writes...

@ #9: Unfortunately, British politics being as they are, constructive enterprise with Europe is only marginally more likely than constructive enterprise with Iran.

Permalink to Comment

28. SK on June 22, 2013 12:03 AM writes...

Prizes make sense to provide incentives for "unmonopolisable/unprofitable therapies" where the market provides limited or no incentives despite a large social need (e.g. new indications for generic drugs, dietary supplements, antibiotics).

Prizes would fill a fundamental gap in the patent system, and have the potential to create 10 or 100 times the return for payors (health insurers/government reimbursement agencies). With about a trillion dollars spent on drugs per annum globally, you'd think it would make logical sense for payors to sponsor a prize that could potentially reduce those costs and make the healthcare system more efficient, e.g. if such unmonopolisable/unprofitable therapies were non-inferior to more expensive biologics and/or reduced time in hospital? Many such therapies exist and are underfunded. It might also reward open up an alternative path for young scientific innovators to get funding for their more radical ideas as opposed to the traditional NIH "push" funding. Prizes could focus specifically on clinical outcomes (e.g. successful clinical trials) and would complement the current grant system which focusses on basic research.

The prize criteria has to be unambiguous and can be paid over 10 years to minimise the chance of fraud or non-reproducibility/inutility.

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