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Education 1st, Science 2nd, Drugs 3rd

March 16, 2011

Science Pharmaceutical Research

The Chicago Council on Science and Technology organized a great talk on March 10 at Northwestern University called Drug Discovery: Ingenuity or Serendipity. I showed up to learn about drug discovery, which I did, but I left thinking about the deteriorating/deteriorated American education system where American 15-year-olds rank 14th in Reading skills, 17th in Science, and 25th in Mathematics. Let me explain…The speaker was Dr Richard Silverman. He talked about the process of drug discovery and whether or not it is ingenuity (brilliant people with brilliant ideas) or serendipity (chance). While implementing humor and providing convincing data, I think he made it clear that drug discovery is a lot of both. It’s a great topic for discussion, but the Q&A session veered in another direction.

Based on a few slides shown by Dr Silverman, the hot topic became the high cost of drug development. He said the cost to develop one drug is around $1,300,000,000, equal to the GDP of Guyana (a google search will show lower estimated average costs). Coincidentally, or not, over the last decade the number of new drugs to reach the market has been dropping, unlike the TPP cell culture dishes in this video: Dishes on the Ground.

After listening to the drug discovery talk, and based on my knowledge of the industry, here are 3 contributions to the high cost of pharmaceuticals and the current lack of new drugs to the market (this is my opinion):

  1. Poor science and math education leads to not only fewer scientists, but also fewer high quality scientists & researchers and therefore fewer new drugs. (more about this below)
  2. Overzealousness – Many scientists want to hit it big. In fact the reason I started a PhD in Pharmacology was to “cure” cancer (how naïve was I). According to Silverman, for every 20,000 compounds researched with the intention of developing into a drug, only 1 makes it to market. Researchers and financiers invest $millions into all 20,000 compounds and once that 1 makes it through the decade long process of development, we are paying for the cost put into all 20,000 compounds. (Kaitin, C.I. Clinical Pharmacology & Ther. 2010, 87)
  3. Outsourcing of research –Dr Silverman stated that the process being outsourced is the manufacturing of the 20,000 compounds. The compounds are then sent back to American companies where they begin testing in the lab. On paper, this lowers the necessary financial capital for drug development. However, my concern is the intellectual capital put into the science of drug development if part of the research is shipped overseas. You can’t outsource science experiments like you can customer service or Nike manufacturing.

Dr. Silverman suggested another contribution: frivolous lawsuits. I don’t know much on the topic of lawsuits and their relation to drug development, so I’ll leave my opinion aside but it seems like a good point.

Science Research Drug Gathering Storm

The contribution I’m most interested in is #1. Poor science and math education not only effects drug development, but also it causes problems across all industries. In 2005 Congress had asked the National Academies (NA of Sciences, NA of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine) to respond to this question:

What are the top 10 actions…that federal policymakers could take to enhance the science and technology enterprise so that the United States can successfully compete, prosper, and be secure in the global community of the 21st century?

In a report called Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the committee concluded that, “Without a renewed effort to bolster the foundations of our competitiveness, we can expect to lose our privileged position.” The top actions recommended were to improve education (provide qualified math and science teachers to every student) and invest in research. However, as stated in a follow up report in 2010, The Gathering Storm, Revisited: “The recommendations made five years ago, the highest priority of which was strengthening the public school system and investing in basic scientific research, appears to be as appropriate today as then.”

Science Gathering Storm Education

Whether we talk about lack of drug discovery or inability to count change at Burger King, the attenuating intellectual capital in our country due to a frugal education system can shoulder a lot of the blame (along with video games, poor parenting, and the image that being smart is “not cool”). The idea is simple: improving education leads to better science which leads to better drugs and cures to many other problems. Cutting rights and funding to schools and teachers is a mistake. Our children and grandchildren will pay for it.

Thank you @C2ST for organizing the evening which included wine, beer, and snacks. It was a privilege to listen to Dr. Richard Silverman– Professor of Chemistry from Northwestern University, winner of numerous awards in science including the prestigious Perkin Medal by the Society of Chemical Industry; and his group first synthesized an organic molecule, which ultimately was marketed as Lyrica, a drug used to combat epilepsy, neuropathic pain and fibromyalgia.

Thank you for reading. Let you be you! (all sources can be retrieved by clicking on highlighted text)

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