Here’s one to put in the “hubris” file – we’ll have to wait to see whether or not it’s followed by the traditional divine retribution. According to Drug Discovery & Development (note: corrected source), startup Recursion Pharmaceuticals, out of the University of Utah, states that they’re going to develop 100 drugs in ten years.
That paragraph break was deliberate, to allow the biopharma industry readers a chance to catch their breath, and perhaps find some paper towels for their keyboards. How, exactly, are these folks going to do this, you ask? The idea is not crazy, nor is it stupid – they’re going to repurpose known drugs through phenotypic screening. Not a bad plan at all. In fact, it’s so reasonable that a lot of other people have had it. (It’s not clear from the article whether or not Recursion’s people are completely aware of this – there’s quite a bit of stuff contrasting their approach to traditional target-based drug discovery). Where they feel they have an edge is in their computational approach to high-content screening:
“. . .most drug-repurposing successes happen serendipitously, or with an educated guess based on deep biological understanding of a given disease. And while that may work for well-studied diseases, we don’t have that same level of understanding with rare disorders,” said Li, Recursion’s co-founder. “With disease modeling and computational algorithms we developed, we’re able to make drug repurposing scalable for use with rare diseases.”
They actually do have a couple of leads for cerebral cavernous malformation, but the article mentions in passing that the Utah lab has been studying that particular condition for about ten years now. They seem to feel, though, that this experience should carry over to thousands of other rare-disease targets pretty easily, though. Recursion’s co-founder and CEO Christopher Gibson, who has just finished his PhD, has anticipated my objections:
The idea of a pharmaceutical company tackling hundreds of diseases in a year is unthinkable for even the largest drug makers, which may be working on a dozen diseases at a time. “There will be doubters, those who say we’re naïve to think we can accomplish that. But that’s where science is taking is us,” Gibson said.
I actually appreciate the amount of nerve being shown here. True, I’d appreciate it more in someone who’s actually had some more experience, because then it would really stand out. Drug discovery is a pretty humbling experience – at least in my experience, and I don’t think it’s just me. I think that “naïve” is a completely accurate description of Recursion’s plan, to be honest. I believe that they truly don’t know what they’re in for, and that there may well be many things that they don’t even know yet that they should know. That’s naïveté, and no mistake.
But on the other hand, everyone starts out like this, more or less. I can’t fault people who’ve never done this sort of thing just for having no experience. I suppose the difference is that we don’t all start companies and tell everyone that we’re going to discover one new drug every four weeks for the next ten years in a row, or make sure that we’re quoted saying things like “These drugs are just sitting in freezers. We’re saying, ‘Give us your drugs and we’ll monetize them”. Still, I think that Recursion should come on down and give it a try. Anyone with ideas about how to improve drug discovery should come on down and give it a try. Reality will sort us all out soon enough. Won’t it just?