Academia and Industry: Two Cultures Divided by a Common Science
BioWorld Perspectives Contributing Writer
A decade or so ago, while working in the venture capital community in Montreal, I experienced some unexpected communication issues. Having visited Paris regularly and made myself generally understood, I was surprised that conversations regarding the City of Light would often be met with blank stares. Mention of the Jardin des Tuileries, the Marais or Fauchon required numerous repetitions with varying inflections and, typical of the English when attempting clarification in a foreign language, an increase in decibels. Confusion over what Place de la Madeleine was, and where it might be, was resolved by putting pen to paper — at which point the inevitable light bulb went off — a fortunate event, as I was concerned that even the Metro might represent an unknown part of Parisian life for my colleagues in Montreal.
A month or so later, when actually working in Paris, my experiences in Quebec became a topic of conversation as I explained the difficulty I had in making myself understood. The response from my new colleagues was best described by the Monty Python phrase "howls of raucous laughter" — to be followed by an enthusiastic discourse on why French as spoken in Montreal was not exactly the real thing. This recalled George Bernard Shaw's famous comment regarding the U.S. and the UK as being "two countries divided by a common language."
'No Simple Solutions,' Even in Discussions
Shaw's comment came to mind recently following a news item that quoted Elias Zerhouni, former director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and now head of R&D at Paris-based Sanofi SA (previously known, to the pecuniary delight of branding and logo consultants, as Sanofi-Synthlabo, Synthlabo, Sanofi-Aventis, Aventis, HMR, etc.), as saying that there were "no simple solutions" to the challenges of translational research in drug discovery and "that such 'bench to bedside' research is more difficult than . . . thought."
This engendered considerable comment, with one blogger interpreting it as Sanofi hiring a head of R&D who "admitted that he didn't have a clue" and another remarking that Zerhouni had been "living in sort of a bubble at NIH." Zerhouni's solution was to become focused on a "re-do" of pharma using an "open innovation" platform. But such solutions can bring up visions of Dilbert and the 1980s invasion of pharma by management consultants.
The 'NIH Bubble' vs. Industry Research
There is a prevailing view that biopharma has failed in its productivity goals because of an inability of scientists to understand and apply the necessary science for successful drug discovery. Some say the real experts are those involved in the NIH's Human Genome Project, its Roadmap, Molecular Libraries Program, and most recently, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) . But this view does a major disservice to the many gifted and capable industry researchers who realize, like Zerhouni, that drug discovery, as Derek Lowe succinctly notes, is "tricky."
The NIH bubble, however, seems firmly in place all over the biopharma world. The contrary view is expressed by the National Institute of Mental Health director who noted, "Would we be foolish — we being an agency that has never developed drugs and actually doesn't know how to do therapeutics that well — to get into this space?" Likewise, Roy Vagelos, the CEO of Merck & Co. Inc. during the latter part of its golden age in drug discovery and a talented drug hunter in his own right, noted that the NCATS initiative is "the pathway to destruction, as far as I can see."
An alternative view  is that NCATS should focus on developing and implementing personalized medicine approaches for established drugs — "the right drug, at the right dose, for the right patient"  — that are viewed as "low-hanging fruit" and for which there is little financial incentive.
Two Cultures, Divided by a Common Science
Perhaps, as was the case in the Human Genome Project, there may be a savior for the NIH Roadmap and the NCATS  in the form of an entrepreneur (like Craig Venter, who helped drive the Genome Project to completion), who has the interest, motivation and experience to get the job done — as contrasted with setting up endless bureaucracies.
But this may be unlikely given the universal truth that drug discovery is a difficult and unpredictable undertaking. In the meantime, to paraphrase Shaw's comment, translational medicine in academia and industry increasingly represents "two cultures divided by a common science." Unfortunately, it's to no one's least of all the patient's benefit.
- Collins, F. S. (2011). "Reengineering translational science: the time is right." Sci. Translation Med. 3, 90cm17.
- Littma, B.H. (2011). "An NIH National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences: is a focus on drug discovery the best option?" Nature Rev. Drug Discov. 10, 471-2.
- Marshall, E. (2011). Waiting for the revolution. Science, 331, 526-9.
- Fitzgerald, G.A. (2011). "NCATS Purrs: Emerging Signs of Form and Function." Sci Transl Med. 3, 83ed2.
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