Synthetic Biology and the Innovation Shortfall

Coincidentally, the same week that Craig Venter announced the creation of an “artificial lifeform”, Newsweek magazine ran a cover entitled “Desperately Seeking Cures: How the road from promising scientific breakthrough to real-world remedy has become all but a dead end.”

This Newsweek story, written by Sharon Begley and Michael Carmichael, is a must-read for anybody interested in understanding the healthcare crisis and, indeed, the economic crisis.  As I have written, life sciences research has been the big bet of the U.S. economy, absorbing a rising share of government and academic research dollars If it had produced a stream of  commercially powerful innovations over the past ten years, the economics of healthcare would have been different. Indeed, I would argue that the current state of the U.S. economy would be much better.

Begley and Carmichael’s article offers an explanation for how undoubted scientific progress in life sciences can coexist with an economically disastrous innovation shortfall. They write:

From 1996 to 1999, the U.S. food and Drug Administration approved 157 new drugs. In the comparable period a decade later—that is, from 2006 to 2009—the agency approved 74. Not among them were any cures, or even meaningfully effective treatments, for Alzheimer’s disease, lung or pancreatic cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, or a host of other afflictions that destroy lives.

….judging by the only criterion that matters to patients and taxpayers—not how many interesting discoveries about cells or genes or synapses have been made, but how many treatments for diseases the money has bought—the return on investment to the American taxpayer has been approximately as satisfying as the AIG bailout. “Basic research is healthy in America,” says John Adler, a Stanford University professor who invented the CyberKnife, a robotic device that treats cancer with precise, high doses of radiation. “But patients aren’t benefiting. Our understanding of diseases is greater than ever. But academics think, ‘We had three papers inScience or Nature, so that must have been [NIH] money well spent.’?”

…”NIH has no skin in the game, so they have no inducement to work with a company” to get a discovery from the lab to patients, says Eric Gulve, president of BioGenerator, a nonprofit in St. Louis that advises and provides seed money for biotech startups. “There isn’t a sense of urgency.”

….If we are serious about rescuing potential new drugs from the valley of death, then academia, the NIH, and disease foundations will have to change how they operate. That is happening, albeit slowly. Private foundations such as the MMRF, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and the Myelin Repair Foundation (for multiple sclerosis) have veered away from the NIH model of “here’s some money; go discover something.” Instead, they are managing and directing scientists more closely, requiring them to share data before it is published, cooperate, and do the nonsexy development work required after a discovery is made.

It’s a great article…go read it.

And finally, back to synthetic biology.  Will this be the new approach that finally breaks free of the innovation shortfall in life sciences? I can’t tell…but I’m watching Venter closely.


  1. I can name only one clear beneficiary of health care expenditures that might qualify as innovation producing great results for the economy, though it is somewhat mundane and small scale — a man named Cook who started a medical instrument company in Indiana. The company has other facilities in the rural Midwest and regularly hires workers who have to qualify through a junior college conducted program of rigorous testing. The man and his wife are preservation enthusiasts and have poured $millions into a number of restoration projects. One retrieved the country’s largest free standing dome — a formerly grand 1920’s hotel — from potential ruin and introduced casino gambling to go with your golf and luxurious room and dining. All of these activities seem to me to address a crying need.

    My local property values are stabilizing probably because of the pharmaceutical employees and network doctors in my immediate area. They keep the sales taxes and the imports flowing, and squeeze out long time residents but pay handsomely for the privilege of tearing down their modest homes. Somehow this contribution does not strike me as so obviously beneficial in light of the need to lay a foundation for growth.

    • No, gambling amid luxury is not a crying need, but employing people in restoring the nation’s crumbling assets to some viable purpose is worthy, in my opinion, and supportive of a variety of skill sets that could lead to other opportunities that are not so resource intensive as some have been in the past.

  2. You should read this. Angell, past editor-in-chief of NEJM points out another piece of the puzzle.


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