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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.

8 Responses

  1. I was just watching MSNBC and they were running a Sky News report on the COVID spike in Houston. She spoke so fast i may have misheard the reporter, but she held up a bag of multiple filled syringes, said that it was a new cocktail of three or four things that Houston has been using with a 96% recovery rate. This is the first i have heard of any treatment being consistently effective. No mention of risks or side effects. Was i hallucinating? Did anyone else catch that report or hear anything similar reported?

    They interviewed a Dr Varon who said they were fighting two enemies: COVID-19 and stupidity. He was very, very angry…as well as blunt!

    • I did not hear the broadcast, Cats, but the cocktail in your link looks like a steroid (which may help alleviate the cytokines storm that overwhelms the lungs), massive doses of vitamin C, which I guess can battle infection?, and a blood thinner, which I imagine prevents some of the dangerous clotting that seems to cause strokes, extremity blood clots, and clots to the lungs. Sounds good to me. The doc sounds like he may have a bit of a large ego, though.

      • Thanks, lililam! The large ego came through loud and clear. The report made it sound like a big deal, with the cocktail being effective and inexpensive. Uppity posted numbers on positive COVID outcomes indicating a 90% recovery rate and a 10% death rate, which seems high to me esp if the number of deaths has been underreported. I wonder if similar cocktails are being used now throughout the country.

      • Here is more information about these doctors and the treatment they are advocating:


        I am not a doctor or a scientist. I have no knowledge about the effectiveness of this treatment. I am just providing a link that may be of interest to Lili and Cats.

        I am a high-risk individual with a chronic health condition. Right now, I am staying inside as much as possible, social distancing when I must go out and WEARING A MASK! My feeling is that this virus is going to be with us for a long time. Everyone would like an quick and easy treatment and vaccine. I am not optimistic that this is possible.

    • Cortisone abs blood thinner *might* make some sense. Cortisone could suppress a cytokine storm response like dexamethasone does, I’m guessing.
      Blood thinner could be useful to treat blood clotting that some Covid patients have experienced.
      Vitamin C? I mean, sure, if you have scurvy. If tot have some kind of connective tissue damage maybe?
      It probably doesn’t hurt but I’m not sure that it’s contributing anything of value.
      Otherwise, it seems like a reasonable cocktail that could be used to treat some patients.

  2. No s in cytokine

  3. I recommend following Derek Lowe of In the Pipeline. He’s a medicinal chemist with decades of experience who actually reads the journals and papers. I’m very confident of his abilities to break down the Covid 19 drug and vaccine studies and evaluate them accurately.
    You might not LIKE his conclusions but at least he’s not going to sugar coat what a massive and difficult undertaking this is.
    There is no cure. Your best hope right now is to not catch it in the first place.

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