Friday, November 20, 2009

Getting the bugs out of medical research

Infectious disease born again?
Of many interesting stories for us to blog about this week -- so many that they'll be spilling over into next week -- here's one that seems to represent a more sensible approach to disease than the relentless focus on genetics that we so commonly see. It's about a new effort by pharmaceutical companies to invest in vaccine development. The AP story says
Malaria. Tuberculosis. Alzheimer's disease. AIDS. Pandemic flu. Genital herpes. Urinary tract infections. Grass allergies. Traveler's diarrhea. You name it, the pharmaceutical industry is working on a vaccine to prevent it.

Another story of what seems to be money well-spent appears on the BBC website. Researchers have developed a new-fangled lab-on-a-chip that will allow easier, faster and cheaper diagnosis of dozens of diseases.
The device relies on an array of antibody molecules that are designed to latch on to the protein-based molecular markers of disease in blood.
The antibodies are chemically connected to molecules that emit light of a specific colour when illuminated - but only when they have bound to the disease markers.

Some of the vaccines in the pipeline won't pan out, but some surely will, and we can imagine the lab-on-a-chip device being useful in many settings, including medically underserved areas, so we find these stories rather heartening. The money being invested is private, not taxpayer money, but not long ago a lot of pharmaceutical money was being bet on personalized genomics, and so on, which our regular readers will recognize as efforts we wouldn't have put our money on. So, it's good to see that following the money takes us in a different direction these days -- industry sees a lot more promise in preventing and treating infectious disease than in fixing genes. Indeed, a lot more disease seems to be infectious than the age of genetics led us to believe.

The Fall of deCode Genetics
It's interesting to juxtapose these two stories with this story from the Wednesday New York Times that reports on the demise of a company established to "exploit the promise of the human genome", that is, to profit from what it could learn about genetic disease from the genealogies of Iceland. Predicated on the idea that common genetic variants would be found to explain most complex disease, deCode Genetics set out to find those variants in Iceland and then develop drugs to target them. But, it turns out that complex disease is too complex for that. Again, regular readers won't be surprised if we find it hard to suppress a little "told you so".

Now, here we want to be careful about the concepts -- and it's related to central issues in The Mermaid's Tale. Life is lived, day to day, on the molecular level. Infection is essentially attack from without, and the immune system tries to recognize molecular signatures of the invading soldiers, to latch onto them and destroy them. Vaccines traditionally help the immune system do that, by exposing it to harmless mimics of the real thing (dead viruses, so to speak).

There are countless infectious diseases, affecting most body systems, and more and more complex 'chronic' diseases that were thought to be 'environmental' or 'genetic' in the traditional senses, seem to be turning out to have infectious or inflammatory components. Thus, enhanced abilities to make vaccines could have farther-reaching implications than has been thought.

The immune system is 'genetic' of course, and its functions are fairly close to genes in many ways. But there may be other and perhaps even surprising ways this subject can bring us back to genetics. We'll deal with them in a post in the near future....


anthrobrew said...

From the NYT article you link:

"Natural selections seems to be much more efficient than expected at ridding the population of dangerous genes, even of those that act well after the age of reproduction"


Anne Buchanan said...

Yeah, oy.

We'll have a full post on that story next week. Hard to resist.

Anne Buchanan said...

Well, impossible to resist, in fact.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks, daniel john!

Ken Weiss said...

We try to be informative and where we express opinions we try to make them constructive, even if they may be irritating to many. Science and the society that supports it, deserve to be the best that we can make it.

Alert readers of our blog, or any blog, can help in exchanges of views that can contribute.

Of course, we also try to be entertaining!