Here’s a fine piece from Matthew Herper over at Forbes on an IBM/Roche collaboration in gene sequencing. IBM had an interesting technology platform in the area, which they modestly called the “DNA transistor“. For a while, it was going to the the Next Big Thing in the field (and the material at that last link was apparently written during that period). But sequencing is a very competitive area, with a lot of action in it these days, and, well. . .things haven’t worked out.
Today Roche announced that they’re pulling out of the collaboration, and Herper has some thoughts about what that tells us. His thoughts on the sequencing business are well worth a look, but I was particularly struck by this one:
Biotech is not tech. You’d think that when a company like IBM moves into a new field in biology, its fast technical expertise and innovativeness would give it an advantage. Sometimes, maybe, it does: with its supercomputer Watson, IBM actually does seem to be developing a technology that could change the way medicine is practiced, someday. But more often than not the opposite is true. Tech companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Google actually have dismal records of moving into medicine. Biology is simply not like semiconductors or software engineering, even when it involves semiconductors or software engineering.
And I’m not sure how much of the Watson business is hype, either, when it comes to biomedicine (a nonzero amount, at any rate). But Herper’s point is an important one, and it’s one that’s been discussed many time on this site as well. This post is a good catch-all for them – it links back to the locus classicus of such thinking, the famous “Can A Biologist Fix a Radio?” article, as well as to more recent forays like Andy Grove (ex-Intel) and his call for drug discovery to be more like chip design. (Here’s another post on these points).
One of the big mistakes that people make is in thinking that “technology” is a single category of transferrable expertise. That’s closely tied to another big (and common) mistake, that of thinking that the progress in computing power and electronics in general is the way that all technological progress works. (That, to me, sums up my problems with Ray Kurzweil). The evolution of microprocessing has indeed been amazing. Every field that can be improved by having more and faster computational power has been touched by it, and will continue to be. But if computation is not your rate-limiting step, then there’s a limit to how much work Moore’s Law can do for you.
And computational power is not the rate-limiting step in drug discovery or in biomedical research in general. We do not have polynomial-time algorithms to predictive toxicology, or to models of human drug efficacy. We hardly have any algorithms at all. Anyone who feels like remedying this lack (and making a few billion dollars doing so) is welcome to step right up.
Note: it’s been pointed out in the comments that cost-per-base of DNA sequencing has been dropping at an even faster than Moore’s Law rate. So there is technological innovation going on in the biomedical field, outside of sheer computational power, but I’d still say that understanding is the real rate limiter. . .