Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Two books on biotechnology

I discovered two very different books on the biotechnology written in two different styles, yet each compelling in its own way. One was Gene Dreams by Robert Teitleman and the other was The Billion Dollar Molecule by Barry Werth. Teitleman's book is more of a narrative style about one company: Genetic Systems. The company was formed more or less from scratch by 'venture capitalists' who recruited a big name to build up the company: Robert Nowinski to find a cure for cancer using monoclonal antibodies. However, its dream of finding a cure for cancer was constantly being undermined by the need for cash-flow resulting in licensing deals and other projects that compromise on its original mission. All the while, venture capitalists and founders were waiting for the right time to either take the company public during the biotechnology fever that had swept Wall Street or to find a buyer for the right price. (See one review here. )

Written in a fly-on-the-wall manner, The Billion Dollar Molecule was a more compelling read. It is to biotechnology what Tracey Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine was to the mini-computer industry. Like Teitleman's book, the company, Vertex was founded to create cures through molecular structural design. It began with the dream of using FK-506 to build a molecule that would suppress the body's immune response to increase the likelihood that transplant patients could survive. Through all this the clash of personalities between the founder Joshua Boger and the academic community consisting of Harvard researcher Stuart Schreiber, Carnegie Mellon's Thomas Starzl who first used FK-506 and FKBP on transplant patients and was convinced (without clinical trials) of its efficacy reads like a novel.

Along the way, we find that finding that a molecule works is just the first step. The person who controls the synthesizing process and manages to produce the the synthetic product becomes one of the keys to the success or failures of the marketing of a molecule. Then finding how the molecule works is the next step: which receptor does it bind to, how does it bind, or what enzymes triggers the binding reaction all becomes part of the keys to finding (or not finding) a cure. Or perhaps its not the molecule but the protein that the molecule is part of - or perhaps its how the protein expresses. Here Werth also recounts the difficulties in trying to do molecular design – that a great deal of guesswork is involved in filling in the structure of the molecule through crystallography and other cutting edge methods. Everything sounds great in theory until we actually try to get it to work. Like Genetic Systems, the need for cash resulted in the company changing its direction mid-course: getting funds from Japanese companies required it to license its findings on FKBP and its structure and to go into AIDS research to see if it could yield technologies and findings that could be licensed. Two reviews are here and here.)

Interestingly, both books point the catalyst for the boom in the stock market for biotechnology to Nixon's War on Cancer which makes me wonder whether the role of the government in economic booms and crashes may have been over-discounted. Is there a role for the Human Genome Project in a later biotechnology rush? After all, the role need not be large – the formation of a commission to study a subject may be enough to trigger an entry into a segment of the industry.

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