Focus May Be Your Worst Enemy in Biotech R&D
My Fascination With Mega Research Initiatives
I like reading biotech research and how the industry brings products to market. I discovered something unusual about the mega-initiatives that try to tackle some of humanity’s biggest diseases.
Some Recent Mega Initiatives by Powerful Billionaires
I was thinking about this a lot lately as the news has seen rise of Mega Research initiatives. I’m referring to the new Chan Zuckerberg initiative, Microsoft’s claims about curing Cancer with AI, and Bill Gates’s initiatives in neurogenerative disease areas.
Gates says a lot in his blog post.
Because we are at a pivotal moment when the conditions are ripe for transformative innovations, there are many important things this new group of national leaders — including whoever is elected in the U.S. in November — can accomplish over the next decade. There are four objectives I think we should prioritize:
- Provide everyone on earth with affordable energy without contributing to climate change.
- Develop a vaccine for HIV and a cure for neurodegenerative diseases.
- Protect the world from future health epidemics, which might be more infectious than Ebola and more deadly than Zika.
- Give every student and teacher new tools so all students get a world-class education.”
The Counterintuitive Solution to Finding Neurodegenerative Drug Targets
I think finding a cure for neurodegenerative diseases is a hunt for the Black Swan.
A lot of what I’ve found suggests that humanity’s best bet against Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, and other neurological diseases might even consist of not focusing research dollars on these areas.
Meta-research suggests that pseudorandom basic science research has had mega yields on biotech, far greater reaching than top-down initiatives.
If you look at the meta research closely, you will easily come to the conclusion that basic science funding is mission critical to the advancement of humanity.
Focus is a Scientist’s Best Friend
The evidence suggests we should get out of the way of scientists and pump them full of cash and reduce their context switching costs. (Paperwork can be exhausting — grant applications are no joke). Hype cycle research funding wastes the time of a lot of humanity’s resources.
The Groundbreaking Innovations Come Without Warning and Without Attention, Unexpectedly.
CRISPR-9 was discovered by accident while trying to understand how bacteria fight the flu. (CRISPR-9 is the acronym for gene editing brouhaha).
Penicillin was discovered via Alexander Fleming’s random mold observation.
Roentgen discovered X-ray tech by accident when he shot electric current through a special gass in a glass tube. Roentgen found out that he’d made a ray that passed through light elements, but interacted with heavy ones; the X-ray.
Vaccines were accidental too. (Edward Jenner — cowpox)
In reference to Nixon’s war on cancer:
“Despite the Herculean effort and enormous expense, only a few drugs for the treatment of cancer were found through NCI’s centrally directed, targeted program. Over a twenty-year period of screening more than 144,000 plant extracts, representing about 15,000 species, not a single plant-based anticancer drug reached approved status. This failure stands in stark contrast to the discovery in the late 1950s of a major group of plant-derived cancer drugs, the Vinca Alcaloids -a discovery that came about by chance, not through directed research.” — Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs.
Every Few Years, Someone is Peddling an Initiative. They rarely work out.
Vaccines Need Constant Supervision, But For Everything Else, Let’s Back the Scientists on Basic Science
I still think Vaccine research is absolutely mission critical, anytime a politician says they want to attack a disease, we should probably rethink the efficacy of statements like these.
A Worthy Books On The Topic of Accidental Scientific Discovery:
Originally published at engineersf.com on October 10, 2016.