A recent article by Arthur Allen in Slate suggests that “genetics is so far a boondoggle.” Putting aside the genetic profiling industry, which Allen likens to “snake oil,” his disappointment in genetics seems misplaced. I am not personally qualified to judge the progress being made in genetics, but as Allen notes: “In five years, the genome has indeed transformed biological research. Thanks to vast quantities of new genetic information, scientists are revealing unimagined complexity in the molecular workings of the body.” Seems like decent progress to me.
What I find disappointing, I suppose, is the criteria by which success/disappointment is judged. Allen next states: “Precisely because of this complexity, though, much of the data have little immediately useful meaning, and the research has produced only a trickle of medicine. The drug industry submitted 50 percent fewer applications to the Food and Drug Administration in 2002 and 2003 than in 1997 and 1998, despite the fact that biotech research investment doubled between the two periods. ”
So what? Is this really a problem with genetics? or perhaps, maybe, with the market / expecations of investors?
Allen is correct to express the disappointment of investors, those folks that invested so heavily with expectations for short term returns. But otherwise, it hard for me to credit the argument that “genetics is so far a boondoggle.”
We should celebrate the sequencing of the human genome and continue to support and applaud the scientific advancements being made in biologial research. Scientific research takes time and effort; so maybe we should temper our expectations for immediate (commercially) useful results.
There are two reasons other than markets that make Allen’s criterion inappropriate.
(1) Synthetic organic chemistry is hard. And expensive. And time-consuming. It is particularly difficult when one must not only synthesize the target compound, but purify it to medical standards, store it, embed it in an appropriate carrier matrix, and ensure that it does not decay before use. In short, just because I can use ball-and-sticks models to show the exact shape of the active portion of my target compound does not mean that the rest of the process is a snap.
(2) Cross-checking against side effects takes time, effort, etc. too. Even for a genetically based disorder, one cannot just magically wave a chemical wand and make everything “normal.” Very few genetically based disorders have no cascade effects.
It’s not just synthetic organic chemistry that’s hard; it’s also the much broader problem of commercializing biomedical and biochemical research. For a couple of decades, the venture community has had enormous success with an investment/return model based on IT and software, and it has repeatedly tried to apply that model to biotech. Genetics-based research is only the most recent “disappointment”; there have been many others over the years.
In a way it’s not surprising if pharma has been distracted from the task of putting out new products from by the huge investment demanded by the gold rush to exploit the new genomic info and new profiling technology. This is a business strategy with a long time horizon. Genomics is as much of a boondoggle as computer science. The only way it could fail to pay off in the end is if the meteor get us first.