Saturday, March 28, 2015

Medicine Is from the Stone Age

When I was in grade school, I went on a field trip to a pharmaceutical company. We toured the plant and learned how new drugs are discovered.

To me, the process was very surprising. They basically just try random chemical compounds and see what they do. Seriously. They find a new compound, check if it will kill you, and if not, see if it has any useful function.

This reminds me of watching movies about cavemen. They would stumble upon something in their environment and see if it could be useful for some task. For example, when hunting a wildebeest, maybe they would find a rock on the ground and use it to attack their prey.

One might say that a turning point in human history was the transition from stumbling upon tools to crafting them.

It probably started with hammers and knives. Then there were farming tools. Then engines. Now we can access the world's information from a $30 tool in our pocket.

So here's what I'm getting at: our current state of drug discovery is from the stone age. Finding a new medicine is like finding a - well, stone - that happens to be helpful.

Now compare a rock to your smartphone. What kind of chasm exists between the two? That's the kind of leap we can expect when drug discovery moves out if the stone age.

But can that happen? Can we actually design drugs the way we design tools?

We can craft tools because we understand the relevant laws of physics and have the manufacturing processes to fabricate the tools. Given the exponential rate of technology growth (discussed last time) we will soon have both the biological understanding and fabrication methods to actually craft medicine.

Then what we will be capable of crafting will make penicillin and ibuprofen look like rocks by comparison.