Drug discovery is often a serendipitous process. While some blockbusters can be meticulously designed, many more have been the result of chance: a unique compound buried in the dirt of some faraway land, an unexpected “side effect” that proves a breakthrough, a treasure from the animal kingdom.
Speeding up serendipity, then, is a huge and worthwhile goal, but one that is — almost by definition — tricky to pull off. That’s what makes a column in the Boston Globe last week by two Theravance* researchers — Dr. David Shaywitz and Dr. Mathai Mammen — so interesting. They suggest a social-networking driven web of patients and doctors could help identify heretofore unrecognized benefits of existing drugs, helping push forward both science and clinical benefit.
On its own, the idea has considerable merit. At a time when analysts are predicting we’ll have a billion smartphones in use by 2013, there are a lot of opportunities for a lot of people to painlessly share a lot of data. To be sure, there are obstacles, some scientific, some regulatory, some practical. But, as a concept, it’s a fantastic idea.
Beyond whatever scientific benefits such a network could bring, it might also serve an even more important goal: getting the public more aware of — and invested in — biomedical research. Even as the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry spends billions in research and development, a disproportionately huge amount of news flow focuses on drug marketing and advertising. While this isn’t a very good representation of how the industry actually spends its money, it’s not surprising: it’s easy to write about because consumers get exposed to advertising on a daily basis. The work of innovation — the reality of life in the laboratory — is nearly invisible to most people.
Shaywitz and Mammen’s network might help to change that . Participants would be more aware that they are part of a high-risk, high-reward endeavor in which their input could change the face of medicine, even if most of the activities of this network don’t yield actionable results.
Last week, President Obama made the case that innovation will be key to “winning the future.” But innovation, up close, isn’t always exciting. That doesn’t make it any less important, and anything that helps make innovation more tangible has the potential to change the way people view the critical investments in R&D that both private industry and the government are making.
* WCG has worked with Theravance in the past, though we were not involved in Shaywitz and Mammen’s piece in the Globe in any way.