Science and Serendipity

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Science and Serendipity

Postby Alan C. Lawhon » Tue Jan 29, 2013 5:46 am

I’m reading the book “DNA: The Secret of Life” by James D. Watson, the famed Nobel laureate and co-discover (with the late Francis Crick) of the structure of the DNA molecule. We are often led to believe that science is a methodical painstaking process where discovery is the result of much plodding and careful step-by-step research. Progress can be slow as discovery tends to be in incremental steps with lots of “dead ends” and failures along the way. That is often the case, but there are also times when a “great discovery” is the result of pure serendipity. In the chapter entitled “DNA, Dollars, and Drugs,” Dr. Watson relates the following tale of scientific discovery.

Dr. Watson is pointing out how drug discovery and the development of new drugs is a process fraught with peril (and financial risk) since many promising “candidate drugs” – which do well in animal trials – often turn out to have unexpected side effects during human trials and thus the “promising drug” has to be discarded. Dr. Watson points to one case in particular which I’ll quote [verbatim] from page 127 of his book.

<begin quotation>

This depressing lesson was learned by SIBIA, a San Diego start-up associated with the Salk Institute. The discovery of membrane receptors for the neurotransmitter nicotinic acid promised a breakthrough treatment for Parkinson’s disease, but as so often in biotech a good idea was only the beginning of a long scientific process. Ultimately, after giving promising results in monkeys, SIBIA’s drug candidate failed in humans.

Like the unexpected weight loss associated with Regeneron’s nerve growth factor, breakthroughs in this area too are often born of pure luck rather than the scientific calculus of rational drug design. In 1991, for instance, a Seattle-based company, ICOS, led by George Rathmann of Amgen fame, was working with a class of enzymes called “phosphodiesterases,” which degrade cell signaling molecules. Their quarry was new drugs to lower blood pressure, but one of their test drugs had a surprising side effect. They had stumbled onto a Viagra-like therapy for erectile dysfunction, which may well yield a bigger jackpot than any they previously dreamed of.*


Viagra itself has a similar history. Also originally developed to combat high blood pressure, trials on male medical students convinced researchers that it had other properties.

<end quotation>

NOTE: Dr. Watson’s (very readable) book was published in 2003, the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA.
Alan C. Lawhon
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