Asking the right questions

Recently, I watched a news report that talked about the challenges of setting up a new high-definition television set in the average home.

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Recently, I watched a news report that talked about the challenges of setting up a new high-definition television set in the average home. First on the list: many HDTV buyers didn't realize that you needed a high-definition cable feed to enjoy the benefits of the HDTV. That got me thinking: Does the biopharmaceutical industry suffer from a similar problem?
In the last issue of DDN Online, I talked about all the exciting new wares that were going to be on display at conferences like LabAutomation and PittCon, causing heads to spin as quickly as centrifuge rotors.
Without doubt, many a sale will be made at these showcases, whether directly on the exhibit floor or shortly thereafter. And within weeks to months, labs around the world will become home to the latest new-fangled gadgets and platforms.
But how long will it be before buyer's regret sets in? How long before financial managers at your company come knocking on your door asking about returns on their investment?
In the rush to be first, to be the best, we have all become victims of the desire for the latest and greatest technological innovations. We act as though the only thing that sits between our current problems and their simple solutions is platform throughput. Or assay sensitivity.
In November, the U.S. GAO released a report about new drug development, trying to understand why NDA numbers have slowed or dropped. In part, they seem to question the use of technology. They write:
"Over the past decade, new technologies including genomics and high-throughput screening have provided tools for researchers to discover and test compounds. According to industry analysts, the use of these technologies has led to increasing expenses without a commensurate increase in the number of drugs developed.
"These analysts have found that although companies have invested substantial resources in acquiring technologies that have generated vast quantities of newly discovered biological data, company researchers are still learning whether the data will lead to potentially valid drug candidates, resulting in compounds and drugs that have failed in either preclinical or early clinical testing."
In some respects, this sounds like an indictment of the instrumentation industry, and seems to question the necessity of these technologies. From my perspective, however, this is the wrong angle to take.
To keep with the television analogy, blaming the instrumentation industry for the woes of the pharmaceutical industry is like blaming Sony and Zenith because you can't find anything better on television than Dukes Of Hazard re-runs (with all due respect to Boss Hogg and Uncle Jesse).
In my mind, a lot of the blame rests with the people purchasing (and using) the instruments, as I don't think they're really asking the right questions when it comes to drug discovery. (And don't look at me, because I'm not sure I know what the right questions are.)
Any scientist worth his or her salary knows that you need to carefully craft your experiments to ensure that you can rely on the results. Ask a bad question, and you'll get a bad (or confusing) answer. Throw in high-throughput technologies and you'll get millions of bad answers. And even if something of interest does arise, it will be incredibly hard to see buried in all that crap.
The GAO report authors concur.
"While the panelists generally agreed that the productivity of the pharmaceutical industry is currently declining, they stressed that this trend may be part of a cycle that will reverse itself, as researchers improve their ability to exploit these technologies."
So while you walk the exhibit floors, I think it is in everyone's best interest—including the instrumentation industry's—if you seriously consider what you want to accomplish before you succumb to the lure of those shiny new toys.
Remember, an HDTV without a high-definition feed is just a TV.

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