Science, Society

Serendipity and drug discovery

The blog Soft Machines writes about a new opinion piece in the Financial Times by David Shaywitz and Nassim Nicholas Taleb on biomedical science and drug discovery. The molecular revolution in biology was supposed to substitute rational design of drugs for trial and error and handwaving. So why do pharmaceutical companies have so little to show for their efforts?

The answer, we suggest, is the mismeasure of uncertainty, as academic researchers underestimated the fragility of their scientific knowledge while pharmaceuticals executives overestimated their ability to domesticate scientific research…So intent are managers on maintaining focus that important opportunities for novel discovery are lost, as is the intellectual space for tinkering and capitalizing on the chance observations and unexpected directions so important in medical research.

As Taleb, author of the brilliant book “Fooled by Randomness”, and more recently, “The Black Swan”, mentions in an article about him in the same paper:

There is a lot more randomness in biotechnology and any form of medical discovery. The role of design is overestimated. Every time we plan on trying to find a drug we don’t because it closes our mind. How are we discovering drugs? From the side-effects of other drugs.