Despite assertions to the contrary, scientists are pretty much like most other people. They eat, sleep, work, party and for the most part are social creatures. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that scientists are also susceptible to hype and succumb to research “fads.” In my former life as an academician, these fads were not so obvious and, for the most part, they unobtrusively helped to advance scientific research. However, after I abandoned academia for the private sector, these fads became blatantly obvious to me. And, for the most part, were primarily driven by potential profits rather than advancing scientific knowledge for the common good.
First, there was combinatorial chemistry in the mid-1990s. Honestly, I never understood the hubris of the pioneers in this field who thought that by randomly mixing chemicals in a laboratory they could outdo nature when it came to creating new drugs. Nevertheless, the combinatorial chemistry fad over time resulted in high throughput screening, laboratory automation and sophisticated assay development technologies which serve as the foundation for modern drug discovery and development.
Next, there was the Human Genome Project that was supposed to provide drug developers with a plethora of previously undiscovered, potential new drug targets. While sequencing the human genome did provide scientists with a treasure trove of new biological targets, drug makers quickly ascertained that progress in drug discovery was not being hindered by the lack of targets but by a dearth of new drug candidates! Ironically, the lack of drug candidates resulted mainly from abandoning natural product drug discovery in favor of combinatorial chemistry. Like combinatorial chemistry, sequencing the human genome helped to improve DNA sequencing technology, sequence analysis and ushered in the fields of genomics and bioinformatics.
After the human genome was sequenced, scientists began to focus on the fields of computational biology and molecular modeling to help to discover and develop new drugs. While computational biology and molecular modeling yield some small successes, its use in drug discovery and development was limited. Ultimately, these fields morphed into something called translational science or medicine; a discipline that I don’t fully understand.
Finally, in the early 2000s, RNA interference (RNAi) became the technology du jour. RNAi was a powerful laboratory-based discipline that was sexy enough to garner its creators a Nobel Prize. Because of this, many drug companies had high hopes for RNAi and quickly jumped on the RNAi bandwagon. Billions of dollars were invested in the technology with the hope that RNAi would speed new drug discovery and also yield new drug candidates. At the outset, it was clear to many industry experts that RNAi molecules would be difficult to develop as new drug candidates. This is because RNAi molecules are difficult to deliver to cell-based targets and have short biological half lives. Despite these obvious shortcomings, many venture capitalists and large drug companies adopted a “damn the torpedoes, full-speed ahead” attitude and invested countless dollars and hours into RNAi research. A doubter from the beginning (and pretty vocal about it too), I was not surprised to read an article in today’s Science Times entitled “Drugmakers’ Fever for the Power of RNA Interference Has Cooled” which describes the likely demise of RNAi as a source of new drug candidates.
Today, the new fad appears to be personalized medicine. While I don’t think that personalized medicine is yet “ready for prime time” I believe that it will become a commercial and medical reality in the next 10 to 20 years. Yet, despite lessons learned from past research fads, personalized medicine is being over hyped and oversold by the scientific and medical communities as well as the lay press.
Fads come and go in science as they do in real life. After all, we scientists are humans! That said, scientists are obliged to “go where the data takes you rather than where you (financially or intellectually) want it to go. If scientists fail to live by this credo, countless research hours will be spent on ideas that cost a lot but yield little.
Until next time..
Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!!!!