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A reminder note of caution about biology in the age of Covid 19

Derek Lowe of In the Pipeline link to one of his previous posts today in response to Elon Musk’s tweet about RNA micro factories, whatever the }#%^ that is.

Lowe points out something most people do not seem to be getting. The software industry and biotech not the same, they don’t operate by the same principles and they can’t be optimized in the same way. Here’s why:

But you know, I don’t really disagree that much with many of the conclusions in the genomics piece – just the pace at which things will happen. That’s what I think has been Valley-ized there, the idea that very, very soon now something will just wildly, exponentially take off. As much as I might like to see something like that happening in biopharma, though, I can’t quite make myself believe it. Technology, Silicon Valley style technology, is human-designed and human-optimized for other humans. As human beings, we’re playing on our home turf there. But the biology of disease is an away game if there ever was one. The inner workings of cells and the ways that they work together are flat-out alien compared to anything we’ve ever built ourselves. People who are used to coding up apps have never experienced anything like it, and many of them don’t seem to realize that they haven’t. Expecting the sorts of behavior that you get from human-built technologies, and expecting the same effects from the techniques that work to optimize them, is an expensive accident waiting to happen.

He’s not just being condescending. Drug discovery is a very different animal. Pressuring scientists to speed things up will only get you so far. I guess you could chain them to their hoods. Some lab rats might like that. But eventually they have to go home and sleep.

Some other things to note:

1.) Drug discovery R&D is a team sport. There are some giants in the field but the vast majority of the time you are standing on the shoulders of many little elves. If you’ve got an ego that must be massaged, find another job. Collaboration is key, coordination is helpful but when it comes right down to it, most projects get side tracked by unexpected test results. That leads to my second point.

2.) Very rarely does “trial and success” occur. Mostly there are a lot of errors. And that’s not a bad thing. You really do learn a lot in science by finding out why something failed. But it will make politicians and average Americans climb the walls.

3.) You can’t offer big cash awards to make it go faster. Sure you can hand out a couple million to get started but what are you going to do next week? In any case, that’s not the way science works. Money doesn’t incentivize the organisms to behave nicely on your time schedule.

4.) Pharma R&D is very difficult compared to IT. I’ve been in both and I can tell you there is absolutely no comparison. IT is like a cakewalk once you understand the processes you’re working with. Biological systems are much harder. It takes years of training to think as weirdly as you need to think in order to do it. Software engineers have logic that lab rats can only dream of.

I guess the bottom line is that there is a lot of pressure and expectations on scientists right now but if they pull some rabbits out of the hat that help ease this crisis, the country will go right back to treating them like silly geeks or Simon Barsinisters, ready to take over the world. I haven’t met any evil ones and there are some people on the spectrum for sure in the labs. But mostly, science and the people who work in it are ignored or neglected until the next emergency comes around. That’s never been more true than it’s been in the last 10 years- to our detriment.

Jeez, Calm Your Tits, America

There is no civil war. Nobody is out to get you. You don’t need to do a pre-emptive strike against people who don’t look like you.

This is the second time in a couple of days that I’ve seen guns pulled on people who were just walking around.

This is not The Purge. And no matter what some right winger media types would have you believe, it is NOT OK to treat people like this. That means black people, women, LGBTQ and liberals. It’s ignorant. We will not excuse it.

So knock it off back there. Don’t make us liberals buy guns.

I’ve heard that this woman has been arrested. Good. Hope she brought her face mask.