Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Where are the heroes of pharma research?

Since accepting my new position with Keck Graduate Institute and switching my industry orientation from ICT to the life sciences, I’ve been struck by the difference in how the two sectors are treated in popular culture — particularly drug discovery, whether “big pharma” or the scrappy biotech startups.

One metric is news articles. When I pick up my copy of Business Week every Friday morning, there will be three or four articles about the major computing, communications or other electronics companies, but many weeks nothing about pharma, big or small. Reading the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times (back before they started charging) suggests a similar pattern.

It’s even more pronounced with books. The weekend brought news of the death of Tom West, a longtime engineering manager for Data General. Most people have forgotten his name, but every computer engineer of my generation read about his success creating the Eclipse minicomputer in The Soul of a New Machine — the book that both created Tracey Kidder’s reputation and also the first to apply “new journalism” to study a complex engineering design problem.

I own at least three bookshelves of memoirs and histories about PC, software, Internet and other ICT companies. (I say at least three because some are in boxes and some are mixed in with other books). These books were written in the past 30 years — since the IPOs of Apple and Microsoft made these firms a household name — and include at least 10 Apple books and 5 each on IBM and HP. (Some of these books are on companies that were never consumer brands, including DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC about the once-great Digital Equipment Corp.)

However, when I went to find similar books about drug discovery companies in the San José public library, almost nothing was to be found. In fact, the only book held by more than one branch was Poison Pills: The Untold Story of the Vioxx Drug Scandal, which as the title suggests is a one-sided “exposé” about Merck & Vioxx.

Along the same lines, watching CNN in an airport waiting lounge — the only time I ever watch CNN — today I saw a similar breathless exposé about allegedly FDA lax approval processes. In this case, the guests were a couple of geriatric contributing editors of Vanity Fair, who wrote an article (“Deadly Medicine”) about Avandia, arguing that prescription drug deaths mean that the FDA standards are too lax.

From the TV interview was no evidence that either man knew anything about small molecule drug discovery, PPAR ligands, risk assessment or the steps necessary to gain a Ph.D. in any of the life sciences. In contrast, before my friend Randy Stross wrote Planet Google, he’d lived in Silicon Valley for decades and written six other books, including a biography of Steve Jobs.

One would reasonably assume this sort of media coverage impacts legislative and judicial decision, class-action lawsuits and even the career intentions of high school and college students. The folks that create privacy-invading breakthroughs like Google and Facebook are lionized while people who try to save lives are (often) demonized.

Extraordinary MeasuresOne notable exception was the 2010 movie “Extraordinary Measures,” based on the memoir of serial entrepreneur John Crowley about his efforts to find a cure for Pompe disease. As one promo put it:
An uplifting, inspirational drama, chronicles John Crowley, the man, who defied conventional wisdom and great odds, and risked his family's future to pursue a cure for his children's life-threatening disease.
Of course, any success of the movie is due more to Brendan Fraser in the lead role with two cute ailing kids, and of course Harrison Ford playing a cross between Harrison Ford and Scottie (“I’m givin’ it all aye got, captain!”).

So are the companies that produce therapeutics and diagnostics as evil as one would think watching CNN or browsing books in the personal health section of Barnes & Noble? If not, what can be done about it?

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