Field of Science

Charity begins in the university

I mentioned in the last post how the transition time between academic science---->industrial technology needs to be accelerated, and it struck me that there were so many things in the conference which were being said by pharma scientists, which originally came from academia, and I cannot help but think of technologies that people in pharma currently rave about, all of which were developed in academic laboratories.

Consider the recent use of NMR spectroscopy in studying the interaction of drugs with proteins, a development that has really taken place in the last five to ten years. NMR is essentially an academic field which has been around for almost fifty years now, originally developed by physicists who worked on radar and the bomb, and then bequeathed to chemists. It is the humdrum tool that every chemist uses to determine the structure of molecules, and in the last twenty years it was also expanded into a powerful tool for studying biomolecules. What if pharma had actually gone to the doorstep of the NMR pioneers twenty years back, and asked them to develop NMR especially as a tool for drug discovery? What if pharma had funded a few students to focus on such an endeavor, and promised general funding for the lab? What if Kurt Wuthrich had been offered such a prospect in the early 90s? I don't think he would have been too averse to the idea. There could then have been substantial funding to specially focus on the application of NMR to drug-protein binding, and who knows, maybe we could have had NMR as a practical tool for drug discovery ten years ago, if not as sophisticated as it is now.

Or think of the recent computational advances used to study protein-ligand interaction. One of the most important advances in this area has beendocking, in which one calculates the interactions that a potential drug has with a target in the body, and then thinks of ways to improve those interactions based on the structure of the drug bound to the protein. These docking programs are not perfect, but they are getting better every day, and now are at a stage where they are realistically useful for many problems. These docking protocols are based on force fields, and the paradigm in which force fields are developed, molecular mechanics, was developed by Norman Allinger at UGA, and then improved by many other academic scientists. Only one very effective force field was developed by an industrial scientist named Thomas Halgren at Merck. During the 80s and 90s, force fields were regularly used to calculate the energies of simple organic molecules. One can argue that at that point they simply lacked the sophistication to tackle problems in drug discovery. But what if pharmaceutical companies had then channeled millions of dollars into these academic laboratories for specifically trying to focus on adapting these force fields for drug-like molecules and biomolecules? It is very likely that academic scientists would have been more than eager to make use of those funding opportunities and dedicate some of their time to exploring this particular aspect of force fields. The knowledge from this specific application could have been used in a mutually beneficial and cyclic manner to improve basic characteristics of the force fields. And perhaps we could have had good docking programs based on force fields in the late 90s. Pharma could also fund computer scientists in academia to develop parallel processing platforms specifically for these applications, as much of the progress in the last ten years has been possible because of exponential rise in software and hardware technology.

There are many other such technologies; fabrication, microfluidics, single molecule spectroscopy, which can potentially revolutionize drug discovery. All these technologies are being pursued in universities at a basic level. As far as I know, pharma is not providing significant funding to universities for specifically trying to adapt these technologies to their benefit. There are of course a few very distinguished academic scientists who are focused on shortening the science--->technology timeframe; George Whitesides at Harvard and Robert Langer at MIT immediately come to mind. But not everybody is a Whitesides or Langer, both of whom have massive funding from every imaginable source. There are lesser known scientists in lesser known universities who may also be doing research that could be revolutionary for pharma. Whitesides recently agreed to license his lab's technologies to the company Nano-Terra. Nano-Terra would get the marketing rights, and Harvard would get the royalties. There are certainly a few such examples. But I don't know of many where pharma is pouring money into academic laboratories to accelerate the transformation of science into enabling technology.

In retrospect, it's actually not surprising that future technologies are being developed in universities. In fact it was almost always the case. Even now-ubiquitous industrial research tools like x-ray crystallography, sequencing, and nuclear technology were originally products of academic research. Their great utility immediately catapulted these technologies into industrial environs. But we are in a new age now, with the ability to suddenly solve many complex problems being manifested through our efforts and intellect. More than at any other time, we need to shorten the transition time between science and technology. For doing this, industry needs to draw up a checklist of promising academic scientists and labs who are doing promising research, and try to strike deals with them to channel their research acumen into specifically tweaking their pet projects to deliver tangible and practical results. There would of course be new problems that we would need to solve. But such an approach in general would be immensely and mutually satisfying, with pharma possibly getting products on their tables in five instead of ten years, and academia getting funded for doing this. It would keep pharma, professors, and their students reasonably happy. The transition time may not always be speeded up immensely. But in drug discovery, even saving five years can mean potentially saving millions of lives. And that's always a good cause isn't it.


  1. But in drug discovery, even saving five years can mean potentially saving millions of lives.

    ah, yes. But for every life saving drug that may come about, there WILL be 5 viagras, all well researched and with millions poured into them.

    The choices we have to make....tough, ain't it.

  2. Quite. But I am sure there are many who consider Viagra "life saving" ;)


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