Notes from an optimist

Go to the profile of Megan Cully
Dec 01, 2017
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As an editor of one of the Reviews journals (Nature Reviews Drug Discovery), my job is quite varied. Sometimes I go to microbiology conferences, sometimes I go to ones on cancer or fibrosis. Some days I look for ideas for Review articles, some days I edit those articles, and some days I write. Before I joined the Nature Reviews I used to blog and freelance write about science, and I’m glad that writing is still part of my job.

One of the reasons I like writing news stories is because I get to learn a lot in a short time. Nothing gets you up to speed faster than talking to an expert for 15 minutes. Today we published a news story on mining bacterial genomes for novel antibiotics, using the recent deal between Warp Drive Bio and Roche as an excuse to do so. Antimicrobial resistance is a major issue, and there are numerous incentives and programs (and courses, should you be so inclined) in place to try to promote the development of new antibiotics.

This comes at the same time as people in the pharma/biotech space are worrying about the decline of their industry. The premise is that therapies for all the easy target-disease combinations already exist, and the ones left — for example, developing novel compounds to treat infections of ESKAPE pathogens — are tough, and it will therefore take lots of time and money to find and develop such compounds, which could easily mean that companies won’t make their investments back in drug sales. Doom and gloom ensue. This follows the Law of Diminishing Returns, also known as Eroom’s law (Moore spelled backwards), or, as I prefer, the Better than the Beatles problem. Ibuprofen already exists, and if you want to develop a new treatment for headaches, you’ll have to do better than ibuprofen. If the music industry faced the same problem we might arguably still be listening to the Beatles.

All of this woe relies, of course, on a lack of genuine innovation. The author of the article cited above puts his eggs in the cell-based and gene therapies basket, but I think that in silico methods could be even more transformative, particularly for infectious diseases. Our capacity to identify biosynthetic clusters has improved substantially, as has our capacity to predict chemical structures from a series of enzymes. Our in silico and sequencing capacity are much more in line with Moore’s law than Eroom’s. I think these sorts of approaches — coupled with the current level of microbiome sampling and sequencing — could provide the kind of innovation that is so desperately needed. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I believe in the capacity of humans to innovate. Long live Homo deus.

Go to the profile of Megan Cully

Megan Cully

Senior Editor, Nature Reviews Drug Discovery

I'm a senior editor on Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, covering most things micro-related as well as immunology, technology, and sometimes even cancer. I did my PhD at the University of Toronto, Canada with Tak Mak, where I studied PI3K signalling, then moved to what was then called the London Research Institute of Cancer Research UK for a post-doctoral fellowship with Julian Downward.

2 Comments

Go to the profile of Claudio Nunes-Alves
Claudio Nunes-Alves 17 days ago

Very cool piece Megan, and the NRDD story is also a very interesting read. I'm not sure I'm one of the overly pessimists, but I'm certainly not one of the optimists, so it's good to hear stories like this that give us some hope! And it's also nice to see many of these concepts that we regularly come across with from the basic science angle (genome sequencing of actinomycetes, natural product discovery, etc) getting real interest from Big Pharma - I'm sure a lot can be gained by both sides, and maybe we'll even get a few new antimicrobials on the way.

Go to the profile of Andrew Jermy
Andrew Jermy 13 days ago

Interesting piece Megan, thanks for posting! btw - at least this editor is still listening to the Beatles.