Notes from an optimist
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.