I had a very interesting email the other day, and my reply to it started getting so long that I thought I'd just turn it into a blog post. Here's the question:
How long can we expect to keep finding new drugs?
By way of analogy, consider software development. In general, it's pretty hard to think of a computer-based task that you couldn't write a program to do, at least in principle. It may be expensive, or may be unreasonably slow, but physical possibility implies that a program exists to accomplish it.
Engineering is similar. If it's physically possible to do something, I can, in principle, build a machine to do it.
But it doesn't seem obvious that the same holds true for drug development. Something being physically possible (removing plaque from arteries, killing all cancerous cells, etc.) doesn't seem like it would guarantee that a drug will exist to accomplish it. No matter how much we'd like a drug for Alzheimer's, it's possible that there simply isn't one.
Is this accurate? Or is the language of chemistry expressive enough that if you can imagine a chemical solution to something, it (in principle) exists. (I don't really have a hard and fast definition of 'drug' here. Obviously all bets are off if your 'drug' is complicated enough to act like a living thing.)
And if it is accurate, what does that say about the long-term prospects for the drug industry? Is there any risk of "running out" of new drugs? Is drug discovery destined to be a stepping-stone until more advanced medical techniques are available?
That's an interesting philosophical point, and one that had never occurred to me in quite that way. I think that's because programming is much more of a branch of mathematics. If you've got a Universal Turing Machine and enough tape to run through it, then you can, in theory, run any program that ever could be run. And any process that can be broken down into handling ones and zeros can be the subject of a program, so the Church-Turing thesis would say that yes, you can calculate it.
But biochemistry is most definitely a different thing, and this is where a lot of people who come into it from the math/CS/engineering side run into trouble. There's a famous (infamous) essay called "Can A Biologist Fix A Radio" that illustrates the point well. The author actually has some good arguments, and some legitimate complaints about the way biochemistry/molecular biology has been approached. But I think that his thesis breaks down eventually, and I've been thinking on and off for years about just where that happens and how to explain what makes things go haywire. My best guess is algorithmic complexity. It's very hard to reduce the behavior of biochemical systems to mathematical formalism. The whole point of formal notation is to express things in the most compact and information-rich way possible, but trying to compress biochemistry in this manner doesn't give you much of an advantage, at least not in the ways we've tried to do it so far.
To get back to the question at hand, let's get philosophical. I'd say that at the most macro level, there are solutions to all the medical problems. After all, we have the example of people who don't have multiple sclerosis, who don't have malaria, who don't have diabetes or pancreatic cancer or what have you. We know that there are biochemical states where these things do not exist; the problem is then to get an individual patient's state back to that situation. Note that this argument does not apply to things like life extension, limb regeneration, and so on: we don't know if humans are capable of these things or not yet, even if there may be some good arguments to be made in their favor. But we know that there are human brains without Alzheimer's.
To move down a level from this, though, the next question is whether there are ways to put a patient's cells and organs back into a disease-free state. In some cases, I think that the answer has to be, for all practical purposes, "No". I tend to think that the later stages of Alzheimer's (for example) are in fact incurable. Neurons are dead and damaged, what was contained in them and in their arrangement is gone, and any repair system can only go so far. Too much information has been lost and too much entropy has been let in. I would like to be wrong about this, but I don't think I am.
But for less severe states and diseases, you can imagine various interventions - chemical, surgical, genetic - that could restore things. So the question here becomes whether there are drug-like solutions. The answer is tricky. If you look at a biochemical mechanism and can see that there's a particular pathway involving small molecules, then certainly, you can say that there could be a molecule to be found as a treatment, even if we haven't found it yet. But the first part of that last sentence has to be unpacked.
Take diabetes. Type I diabetes is proximately caused by lack of insulin, so the solution is to take insulin. And that works, although it's certainly not a cure, since you have to take insuin for the rest of your life, and it's impossible to take it in a way that perfectly mimics the way your body would adminster it, etc. A cure would be to have working beta-cells again that respond just the way they're supposed to, and that's less likely to be achieved through a drug therapy. (Although you could imagine some small molecule that affects a certain class of stem cell, causing it to start the program to differentiate into a fully-formed beta cell, and so on). You'd also want to know why the original population of cells died in the first place, and how to keep that from happening again, which might also take you to some immunological and cell-cycle pathways that could be modulated by drug molecules. But all of these avenues might just as easily take you into genetically modified cloned cell lines and surgical implantation, too, rather than anything involving small-molecule chemistry.
Here's another level of complexity, then: insulin is certainly a drug, but it's not a small molecule of the kind I'd be making. Is there a small molecular that can replace it? You'd do very well with that indeed, but the answer (I think) is "probably not". If you look at the receptor proteins that insulin binds to, the recognition surfaces that are used are probably larger than small molecules can mimic. No one's ever found a small molecule insulin mimetic, and I don't think anyone is likely to. (On the other hand, if you're trying to disrupt a protein-protein interaction, you have more hope, although that's still an extremely difficult target. We can disrupt things a lot more easily than we can make them work). Even if you found a small-molecule-insulin, you'd be faced with the problem of dosing it appropriately, which is no small challenge for a tightly and continuously regulated system like that one. (It's no small challenge for administering insulin itself, either).
And even for mechanisms that do involve small-molecule signaling, like the G-protein coupled receptors, there are still things to worry about. Take schizophrenia. You can definitely see problems with neural systems in the brain when you study that disease, and these neurons respond to, among other things, small-molecue neurotransmitters that the body makes and uses itself - dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine and others. There are a certain number of receptors for each of those, and although we don't have all the combinations yet, I could imagine, on a philosophical level, that we could eventually have selective drugs that are agonists, antagonists, partial agonists, inverse agonists, what have you at all the subtypes. We have quite a few of them now, for some of the families. And I can even imagine that we could eventually have most or all of the combinations: a molecule that's a dopamine D2 agonist and a muscarinic M4 antagonist, all in one, and so on and so on. That's a lot more of a stretch, to be honest, but I'll stipulate that it's possible.
So you have them all. Now, which ones do you give to help a schizophrenic? We don't know. We have guesses and theories, but most of them are surely wrong. Every biochemical theory about schizophrenia is either wrong or incomplete. We don't know what goes wrong, or why, or how, or what might be done to bend things back in the right direction. It might be that we're in the same area as Alzheimer's: perhaps once a person's brain has developed in such a way that it slips into schizophrenia, that there is no way at all to rewire things, in the same way that we can't ungrow a tree in order to change the shape of its canopy. I've no idea, and we're going to know a lot more about the brain by the time we can answer that one.
So one problem with answering this question is that it's bounded not so much by chemistry as by biology. Lots and lots of biology, most of it unknown. But thinking in terms of sheer chemistry is interesting, too. Consider "The Library of Babel", the famous story by Jorge Luis Borges. It takes place in some sort of universe that is no more (and no less) than a vast library containing every possible book that can be be produced with a 25-character set of letters and punctuation marks. This is, as a bit of reflection will show, a very, very large number, one large enough to contain everything that can possibly be written down. And all the slight variations. And all the misprints. And all the scrambled coded versions of everything, and so on and so on. (W. v. O. Quine extended this idea to binary coding, which brings you back to computability).
Now think about the universe of drug-like molecules. It is also very large, although it is absolutely insignificant compared to the terrifying Library of Babel. (It's worth noting that the Library contains all of the molecules that can ever exist, coded in SMILES strings - that thought just occurred to me at this very moment, and gives me the shivers). The universe of proteins works that way, too - an alphabet of twenty-odd letters for amino acids gives you the exact same situation as the Library, and if you imagine some hideous notation for coding in all the folding variants and post-translational modifications, all the proteins are written down as well.
These, then, encompass everything chemical compound up to some arbitrary size, and the original question is, is this enough? Are there questions for which none of these words are the answer? That takes you into even colder and deeper philosophical waters. Wittgenstein (among many others) wondered the same thing about our own human languages, and seems to have decided that there are indeed things that cannot be expressed, and that this marks the boundary of philosophy itself. Famously, his Tractacus ends with the line "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen": whereof we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.
We're not at that point in the language of chemistry and pharmacology yet, and it's going to be a long, long time before we ever might be. Just the fact, though, that computability seems like such a more reasonable proposition in computer science than druggability does in biochemistry tells you a great deal about how different the two fields are.
Update: On the subject of computabiity, I'm not sure how I missed the chance to bring Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem into this, just to make it a complete stewpot of math and philosophy. But the comments to this post point out that even if you can write a program, you cannot be sure whether it will ever finish the calculation. This Halting Problem is one of the first things ever to be proved formally undecidable, and the issues it raises are very close to those explored by Gödel. But as I understand it, this is decidable for a machine with a finite amount of memory, running a deterministic program. The problem is, though, that it still might take longer than the expected lifetime of the universe to "halt", which leaves you, for, uh, practical purposes, in pretty much the same place as before. This is getting pretty far afield from questions of druggability, though. I think.