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Thursday: Fantasies of a Lab Rat

What happens at the lab when the managers and the MBAs go to an international meeting and leave the labrats in charge of themselves:

Can we get an Amen?

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True Story:  Last week, I was standing in front of a halal grease wagon in Philadelphia waiting for my baba ganouj, when some African American dude selling a book started chatting me up.  Much eye rolling ensued but he was actually kinda of interesting and I had some time to kill.  I wasn’t interested in buying his book because I told him I was out of work and trying to save money (yeah, yeah, I should have brought my lunch but I had a yen for roasted eggplant.  So sue me.)  He asked me what I did and I told him I was a drug designer of oncology drugs.  Oooo, he said, does that mean your companies have figured out the cures for cancer and are just sitting on them?  I hear this kind of uninformed opinion all of the time, that the pharmas are sitting on some big cancer cure and they’re holding out in order to, um, to, well, hell, I don’t know.  This accusation never did make any damn sense to me.  If the pharmas had THE definitive cures for cancer, they’d be screaming and jumping up and down at the FDA to approve them right away.  Cancer is big business and there’s a lot of potential extortion money to be made.  People who are frantic to survive to see their kids grow up will pay just about anything for a cure.

Sadly, there is no cure for cancer yet, mostly because cancer is not just one disease but many diseases.  You would think that with all of the work that is left to do to cure cancer and all of the discoveries that we are making in cell biology in the past decade that every scientist in the world would be overwhelmed with work instead of getting laid off and scraping together a meager existence.  But the truth is that those of us who should be working round the clock to do protein expression, structural biology, genomics and medicinal chemistry are falling out of the middle class and into the realm of a precariat existence while cancer goes uncured and the amount of resources thrown at is is parsed into “need to know” CRO operations in foreign countries.

So, when I saw Derek Lowe’s morning post on the hope of curing cancer, I got a little wistful.  Derek ends his post:

But I’m operating on a different time scale from Eschenbach. Here he is in 2006, in The Lancet:

 

“Think of it”, von Eschenbach says, “for thousands of years we have dealt with cancer working only with what we could see with our eyes and feel with our fingers, then for a 100 years we’ve dealt with cancer with what we could see under a microscope. Now, we have gone in 10 years to a completely different level.” This new science “is going to change how we think, it’s going to change how we approach things; it’s going to change everything.” 

. . .He points to the example of testicular cancer. The development of treatments for this cancer was a great success, von Eschenbach says, but one that “took decades of trial and error, one trial after another, after another, after another”. That hit-and-miss approach is no longer necessary, von Eschenbach says. Now, if 10% of patients responded to a treatment, he says, “you take the tools of genomics and go back, reverse engineer it, and ask: what was different about that 10%? Well, they had an EGF [epidermal growth factor] receptor mutation, ah ha!”

 

Ah ha, indeed. Here’s more in a similar vein. The thing is, I don’t disagree with this in principle. I disagree on the scale. No one, I think, knows how to eliminate deaths from cancer other than the way we’re doing it now: detailed investigation of all sorts of cancers, all sorts of cellular pathways, and all sorts of therapies directed at them. Which is all a lot of work, and takes a lot of time (and a lot of money, too, of course). It also leads to a huge array of dead ends, disappointments, and a seemingly endless supply of “Hmm, that was more complicated than we thought” moments. I don’t see that changing any time soon. I’m optimistic enough to think that there is a bottom to this ocean, that it’s of finite size and everything in it is, in principle, comprehensible. But it’s big. It’s really, really big.

There are people who defend goal statements like Eschenbach’s. Such things force us to aim high, they say, they focus attention on the problem and give us a sense of urgency. Taken too far, though, this point of view leads to the fallacy that what’s important is to care a lot – or perhaps to be seen to care a lot. But the physical world doesn’t care if we care. It yields up its secrets to those who are smart and persistent, not to the people with the best slogans.

Or the best MBAs that money can buy.  I guess the pharmas really are sitting on a cure.

*****************

Speaking of Amens, our poll shows that an awful lot of us (about 76%) are heathens with a naturalistic worldview.

Alright!  {{high fives}}

Oh, sorry about that, believers.  We’ll try to be nice.

If you haven’t had a chance to declare your godlessness or semi-godlessness, as it turns out, check it out here.

****************

Sounds like it was “Rick Santorum has cooties” night at the Republican playground debate last night.  I didn’t know that Romney supported Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey. I like the end of this article for its “I know you are but what am I?” flavor:

Mr. Romney, who has struggled to win the trust of party activists, is under intense pressure to prove his conservative bona fides. He was asked about a recent statement that he was “severely conservative” when he was governor. He defined his meaning as “strict,” saying he empowered state police to enforce immigration laws, pushed English language immersion programs and “stood up and said I would stand on the side of life.”

Mr. Paul, in response to a question about the biggest misconception about him, complained about the perception that he could not win against Mr. Obama in the general election, pointing to a recent poll that showed him closer to the president than the other candidates.

When Mr. Romney was asked to describe a misconception about him, he demurred, borrowing from Mr. Gingrich’s debate-the-moderator playbook and saying sharply, “You know, you get to ask the questions you want; I get to give the answers I want.”

But the discussion kept returning to Mr. Santorum.

When the moderator asked Mr. Paul why he was running a new television advertisement calling Mr. Santorum “a fake” conservative, Mr. Paul answered simply, “Because he’s a fake.”

“I’m real, I’m real, I’m real,” Mr. Santorum said, shaking his head.

Oooo, I think the debate game has run its course (about 15 debates ago) and everyone is getting a little testy.  For Pete’s sake, can we just have Romney appoint Santorum as his VP running mate and get on with it already?

*****************

Speaking of Santorum, I LOVE his condescension of other religions, even other Christians, as being inferior to Catholicism.  Whoo-hee!, too funny!  Evangelical Fundamentalists do that to more liberal brands of Christianity all the time.  Presbyterians are just posers to them.  It’s kind of amusing for some Pennsylvanians who are Santorum admirers to get a taste of their own medicine.  You’re nothing to Rick if you’re not a Pope toady.  Papists rule, Protestants!

Pass the popcorn.