In the last couple of weeks, I have started to write three different editorials for this issue of Drug Discovery News. And while they may yet see the light of day in some distant space, I have decided instead to go in an entirely different direction from usual this month.
As I look back over the last couple of years, I realize that I have been pretty hard on the pharmaceutical industry and its allied partners. I have taken you to task for hyperbole, short-sightedness and other sins against the people and business. But wherever possible, I have tried to couch my comments with information that will hopefully help people see what has, is or might go wrong with their approach to drug discovery.
But as another year draws to a close, I find myself growing weary of the hell-fire and damnation—if only for one issue (so be warned). And so, my gentle readers, I have come to praise pharma, not to bury it.
As with any other group, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries have the innate ability to surprise you, pulling together for the common good when you didn't necessarily expect it. In 2004, it was the industry's response to Hurricane Katrina and the devastation in the southern United States, where drug companies left, right and center made every effort to ensure that people continued to receive their medications regardless of where they had been relocated or under what conditions they were living.
In 2005, there seemed to be a renewed vigor in treating the ills of the global community, as company after company signed collaborations, distribution agreements, or opened researcher centers with organizations working in the developing world to ensure that troubled regions get their fair share of the benefits of the developed world. Oh, sure, we still have a long way to go, but with the efforts of various non-profit groups, international collaborations between government agencies, and corporate incentives, I have very strong feelings of hope for the future.
Likewise, as we recently reported, the environment is playing an increasingly large factor in how companies do business, both from the perspective of managing the costs associated with waste as well as biological impact that discarded drugs have on the environment. Companies are starting to realize that chemistry, like business, can be done much more economically and that it is easier to recoup costs that were never expended in the first place.
For example, the U.S. EPA is helping companies understand how they can perform traditional chemical syntheses with greener chemistries, often replacing organic solvents with water or dramatically enhancing yields through novel technologies. Likewise, initiatives that rely on process analytical technologies are allowing companies to fix faulty processes before too much waste is developed, saving companies valuable down time on their production lines.
And of course, nowhere is the wonder of novel technologies felt more keenly than in the discovery process itself. I've recently had the pleasure of speaking with a number of people who are developing fluorescence microscopy methods that should allow scientists to monitor the behaviors of individual proteins and complexes within living cells, helping them understand whether biochemical processes and drug effects are happening in localized environments or on a more cell-wide level.
Similarly, high-speed low-cost sequencing technologies are starting to make realistic the lofty goal of personalized medicine—although I still have my doubts on the pill side. And all of these genomic efforts are showing us that we still have so much to learn about the human genome; that like the universe itself, even the darkest regions of the genome, once thought to carry nothing but vestigial sequences, may contain some of the most critical sequences—microRNAs and copy number variants—that dictate who we are as individuals.