Brent R. Stockwell


On his book The Quest for the Cure: The Science and Stories Behind the Next Generation of Medicines

Cover Interview of July 25, 2011

The wide angle

Given the declining number of new drugs, and the crisis in the pharmaceutical industry, many are asking what can be done.

The Obama administration has proposed a new initiative to help address our drug shortage: to create a new center within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), focused on aiding the discovery and development of new medicines.

This controversial new center, called the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, is meant to catalyze the transfer of discoveries from basic science laboratories to clinical studies that involve patients, and eventually into commercial products.  On a practical level, the center can help to move discoveries down the drug discovery path to the point that they become attractive for commercial entities to adopt and invest in.

Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies and venture capitalists have become increasingly conservative in their investment strategies, especially since the economic disruptions in 2008. This conservatism has resulted in a lack of investment in early-stage technologies and drug candidates, making it difficult to translate these discoveries into a commercial and clinical setting.  The well-known “valley of death” that separates basic sciences from commercial and clinical translation has grown larger and more ominous.  By assisting the development of selected technologies and compounds through the early stages of drug discovery and development, the new NIH center could help to bridge this valley and bring the most promising technologies to market.

But there is a more significant challenge to discovering new medicines than simply bringing basic discoveries to market.  So if the new NIH center were to focus on a simple catalyst role, it would represent a lost opportunity.

The more fundamental challenge to discovering new drugs involves the basic science issue of protein druggability.  It is this that could have a far more significant impact on the number and type of future medicines.

It is possible that new technologies and approaches could solve the challenging problem of protein druggability.  However, if we abandon the undruggable proteins, we abandon the hope for truly transformative medicines. We must be able to translate the vastly detailed molecular networks emerging from basic science studies into therapeutics.

Currently, many of the root causes of diseases are considered undruggable and cannot be addressed directly with medicines. If we could solve the mystery of protein druggability, we could open up a vast number of possibilities for new medicines, and ultimately end the drug discovery crisis.