Tag Archives: Biology

Amazing Drugs Are Going from the University to the Graveyard, While Patients Pay the Price

Was the cure for cancer invented in a university, only to be shelved for a lack of funding?

University labs are creating incredible drugs on a regular basis. Unfortunately, most will never get to the patients that need them so desperately. This is the conclusion of an intriguing book I just read, Preserving the Promise: Improving the Culture of Biotech Investment, by Scott Desain and Scott Fishman.

The problem is that universities don’t have the massive funds it takes to bring a drug candidate through clinical trials to FDA approval. What about Big Pharma? Well, they’ve been cutting their R&D budgets drastically for years.

This leaves early stage biotech investors to fund much of the commercialization of new drugs, and there simply aren’t enough of them to fund all the good candidates. Indeed, the number of investors specializing in this area is shrinking. This doesn’t surprise me given that most early-stage investors focus on software startups and have a software background themselves.

This does leave the few angel investors who specialize in biotech in an enviable position though: more great companies out there than there are angels to fund them means big slices of great companies for less money, and thus higher returns. This is an area that I may be branching out into in the future. Being even a tiny part of creating a new lifesaving drug or medical device would be incredible.

University policies also hinder the effective commercialization of research, the book notes. Technology Transfer Offices own the patent, but sometimes are hesitant to license it unless they can get lots of revenue for it right away, which is hard for a fledgling company to provide. In other cases, they bury the patent, thinking it unpromising. And university conflict of interest policies can often stop the inventor from continuing to work on the research with company funds. This separates the technology from the person who is best positioned to advance it.

In all, this seems like a neglected area with a lot of problems. That we rely on it for virtually all new drugs is scary. But investors like myself should eye the area with interest, especially given rich valuations in software startups.

For more posts on biotech, check these out:

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Photo: The co-founders of BioNTech, a biotech success story. “Forschungszentrum der Biotech-Unternehmen BioNTech AG und Ganymed Pharmaceuticals AG” by MWKEL-RLP is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

What I Learned From James Watson, Co-Discoverer of the Structure of DNA

We wish to suggest a structure for the salt deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.

So begins the famous Nature paper by James Watson and Francis Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA in 1953. Their discovery revolutionized biology and won them both the Nobel Prize.

I just finished reading Watson’s book The Double Helix, and as a layman I found the inside view of the process of scientific discovery intriguing. What struck me most was the importance of collaboration.

We are used to thinking of scientists as lone geniuses hunched over a lab bench until they exclaim “Eureka!” But Watson’s book makes clear how important the many scientists surrounding him at the University of Cambridge were to his discovery. He repeatedly checks his findings with others more experienced than he in a particular area, like structural chemistry. And without the long conversations with Crick, the discovery would never have happened in the first place.

Being in the right environment was so important to Watson that he left the University of Copenhagen, against the terms of his fellowship, when he realized he needed the expertise of the Cambridge circle to make a real breakthrough. He did what was necessary and asked for permission later. What would’ve happened had he sat around waiting for permission?

The casual sexism with which Watson treats Rosalind Franklin, the expert in X-ray photography that wound up playing a major part in the discovery of the double helix, was striking to me reading the book in 2021. Watson tends to characterize her opinions and insights as obstinancy or rudeness. He doesn’t view his male colleagues the same way.

If cooperation is so critical to science, I can’t help but wonder what Watson could’ve achieved with a more collaborative attitude toward Franklin. Would the breakthrough have come even sooner? Would they have been able to make even more discoveries together if Watson had been more open to her expertise?

I loved getting a view of what is in a scientist’s mind as they make a major breakthrough. Watson was by no means certain he was right at first, but he worked methodically to prove what he suspected. That even such a genius has doubt in his ideas can cheer the rest of us!

The great chemist Linus Pauling had suggested a different structure of DNA, which turned out to be incorrect. But when he saw the elegance of Watson and Crick’s double helix, he was in awe and thrilled, rather than upset at being proven wrong.

I find that attitude to be one of the great things about science. There is both collaboration and competition, but in the end, everyone is working toward one goal: understanding.

In all, I found Watson’s book interesting and instructive. Since it was written in 1968, I’m not sure how many people are still reading it, but it’s worth a look. Check it out!

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How We Could’ve Known Theranos Was a Fraud

Investors lost over $9 billion on Theranos, the diagnostics testing company run by Elizabeth Holmes that was exposed as a fraud. Worse yet, patients received inaccurate test results, imperilling their health. But what if asking one simple question could’ve prevented all this?

In the book Editing Humanity, Keith Davies notes that Theranos’ technology had no foundation in peer-reviewed, published research. The always-astute John Ioannidis pointed this out as early as 2015. Theranos published a single paper in 2018, after the company was already exposed as fradulent and was near bankruptcy. Theranos made incredible claims for its technology, but without peer review by respected journal, there was no one to check if those claims were actually true. (Theranos had filed patent applications, but that doesn’t necessarily provide the same level of detail and review.)

This stands in contrast to many other biotech companies, such as several in the CRISPR area (Editas Medicine, Intellia Therapeutics, etc.) whose approach grows out of research published in major journals. Also, such companies have major scientists as co-founders, not a 19 year old unknown.

I am considering getting involved in early-stage biotech investment, so asking “What papers can you point me to that underlie your technology?” is a question I plan to ask in the future. That may be able to weed out some weaker companies and potential frauds.

For more background on Theranos, I strongly recommend the outstanding book Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. I listened to it as an Audible audiobook. It was read by Will Damron, whose voice is outstanding.

I also hear excellent things about the ABC News podcast series The Dropout, which details Holmes’ path from Stanford student to billionaire to accused criminal awaiting trial today. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I look forward to getting a chance soon!

“File:Elizabeth Holmes 2014 cropped.jpg” by Photo by Max Morse for TechCrunch TechCrunch is licensed under CC BY 2.0