Friday, February 5, 2016

Patent Pending

Recent discussions we have had about intellectual property in inhibitor design highlight how artificial it all is.  One needs "composition of matter", it seems, i.e.,   a new molecule. One cannot patent a new use for an old molecule as easily - it seems to be not worth it for investors. One cannot patent a molecule that has been published. Etc etc.

One wonders, then, what patents are really for. Are they to give due financial reward for creative people who make new, useful things or processes?  If so,  a lot of people deserve the rewards.

Assume someone designs a drug using molecular dynamics.
Who should get the credit?
Here's a very partial list.

a) Isaac Newton, Erwin Schroedinger etc, who laid the foundations.
b) Everyone who contributed to the simulation methodology.
c) The computer manufacturers and sys admins etc.
d) The team who did the simulations.
e) The experimental team who tested the compounds that failed and those that succeeded.
f) Everyone in decades gone by who devised the experimental methods for e)
g) All the preclinical researchers who optimized the lead.
h) The clinical trial patients and doctors etc.
i) The drug company that makes and distributes the drug.
j) Everyone who taught everyone to do a)-j)

That's a whole lotta folks;  some dead, some alive. Those still alive should share the profits somehow. That would be ideal. Unworkable, surely, but ideal, I think.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Cheap drugs - yeaaahh!!

We hear a lot these days about the "greed of big pharma" and how it pushes up drug prices.
Well, rather than taking the easy way and demonizing companies here's an opinion from someone not particularly qualified to give one (me!) on what could be done..

1) A tax holiday for repatriating offshore cash stashes under the condition that the money all be spend to increase R&D spending. A Merck manager once told me they had $13B stashed offshore. Lets get it back. Then think of ways of discouraging companies from doing it again (lower corporation tax rates?).

2) Banning marketing of prescription drugs. Isn't prescription drug advertising tantamount to recognizing that MDs don't know what they're doing? They should be up to date on the best treatments based on the scientific literature, rather than being swayed by rep visits and clamoring patients. I know marketing works for drug companies, but for something so technical plain, dumb ads seem wrong.

3) Allowing insurance companies and government entities to negotiate the costs of drugs.  Without this in place you are preventing market forces from working. This is what happens in other countries and certainly reduces prices there. Also, while we're at it, the purchase of prescription drugs from other countries (e.g. Canada) should be legalized.

4) Government initiatives to discourage companies ploughing profits into share buybacks. Here I am on slightly wobbly ground, not knowing an awful lot about this aspect of corporate economics, but it seems to me that many companies  spend a large portion of their earnings in  buying up their own shares. They do it to artificially drive up the value of the remaining shares, increasing their value to shareholders. Indeed, in 2015 about a trillion dollars of US company earnings was spent in this way. Money spent in share buybacks is not being invested in the future of the company. Short-termism kills pharma R&D.

5) Increasing federal R&D spending on drug discovery. This, of course, removes some financial R&D burden from pharma, but is necessary to counteract the short-termism in the industry. It is not anti-market, because pharma companies have the choice of doing this research themselves or buying expensive licenses from government-funded institutions later on. Of course, as I'm one of those who believes in  not increasing the overall tax burden on the country, that federal R&D money would have to come from somewhere. Hmm...At least some of it would be regained in the future, though,  through cheaper Medicare and Medicaid drug costs  and the availability of more effective medicines with fewer side-effects and hospital readmissions, reducing overall health care costs.

Cheap drugs - wayhayyy!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Never mind the quality, feel the width.

Stuyvesant High School Logo
New York's specialized  Bronx and Stuyvesant high schools have an incredible history of excellence. For example, no fewer than 12 Nobel laureates have emerged from their ranks, as well as many Pulitzer prizewinners and business and political leaders. These kids are darned high achievers. However,  there appears to have been an initiative to 'dumb them down';  local Schools Superindendent Aderhold recently wrote a 16-page letter worrying that the constant pressure on students to achieve high grades risks leading to depression/suicides etc and suggesting, through some concrete measures, that the pedal should be taken off somewhat.  Mixed in with this are racial issues, such as  the observation that most of the students admitted to these elite schools are now Asian-American, the parents of whom seem to be firmly against reducing the pressure on students.

My first, knee-jerk  reaction to this story was my usual one - don't compromise the quality! I don't like to see excellence destroyed. If whites, hispanics, blacks etc are not making it into these schools then actions need to be taken for these kids at younger ages to increase their competitivity. However, one of the observations of Aderhold is something that I sympathize with: students and their parents appear to be obsessed with grades, at the expense of actually learning the material they are given. I know that when I was in high school I was also grade obsessed. You learn what is necessary to get the answer right on expected questions, rather than trying to really understand what the subject is about. Never mind the quality, feel the width. Hence, standardized testing systems  don't measure the depth of understanding a student has.

I don't have an easy answer for this one. What we had at Heidelberg University seemed the closest to perfection to me.  It was old-fashioned I think. Students were indeed placed under intense exam pressure, but with hour-long oral exams with two professors determining their degree grades. I found these oral exams perfect for testing understanding, because they were interactive. We profs could dig deeply into the comprehension of students. Personally, I would ask each student what their favorite topic was and try and get them to explain it to me. Even if I knew next-to-nothing about it myself I could tell if the student knew what they were talking about. And I personally wasn't that interested in how much a student knew, more in how deeply they conceptualized their favorite topic, and how they had thought about it. Of course, this kind of examining  is almost impossible to quantify and standardize. For that reason it has probably been dumped in Heidelberg by now.

[Oh, and yes, about the 'problem' of getting more non-Asians into these schools, the answer is to get those kids off their asses and working harder in middle school. Thought that was obvious?]

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Pike O'Blisco

The Summit of Pike O'Blisco with Bowfell in the background.
Pike O'Blisco, in the English Lake District -  the first mountain I ever climbed. Alfred Wainwright wrote: "the man has no blood in his veins who does not respond eagerly to its fine-sounding, swashbuckling name".  My Dad took me and Nigel up it when we were 6. We were in thick fog, and saw nothing, and he tied us all together with a rope, though I don't know why really: probably just to keep us close to him. But I LOVED it, and a couple of days later we climbed Bowfell as well, this time in sunshine, and I was blown away (not literally of course; that would have been terrible). Thus was a lifelong hobby seeded......

Monday, December 7, 2015

Christmas Fun at UTK

Over the last few days the University of Tennessee at Knoxville has been dragged into a debate concerning a web post from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion trying to instruct us on how to hold festive parties at Christmas-time. The post tried to encourage inclusivity by suggesting the removal of Christmas themes from holiday parties, leading to calls for the resignation of the UTK Chancellor, Jimmy Cheek.

I'm from Europe, and so my views may be colored by my prior experience there. But here's my tuppence:

In Europe we would simply say, "What's the Fuss?" Europeans hold their Christmas Parties and everyone is invited, whatever their beliefs.  One reason this does not create a problem is that Christmas parties are not particularly religious, in themselves. For many, Christmas trees and Santa Claus have long been decoupled from religious belief, but allow us to celebrate in a traditional way.

Now, in my past I have been invited to plenty of events stemming from beliefs that have not formed part of my upbringing:  Hindu, Shinto, Muslim, Buddhist, Hopi etc. Each time I felt honored to be invited, and did not feel excluded,  fully partaking in any ceremonies that I was asked to. So why should non-Christians feel excluded when they are invited to a Christmas party? Exclusion comes from NOT being invited to an event because of what you believe, or, conversely, not attending one when you are invited. So, personally, while, of course, US campuses need to be 'inclusive' and 'diverse',  the recent web-site entry from the Office of Diversity seems ridiculous, supercilious arrogance to me. Leave our parties alone! Don't tell us how to have fun!

HOWEVER,  though,  some words for those local politicians who wish to remove the Chancellor for this, including, as I have read,  John J. Duncan, Dolores Gresham and John Bell.  It's sad that  your primary concern for UT appears to be fighting occasional manifestations of overboard political correctness. You clearly have no interest in judging Jimmy Cheek on his overall contribution to  UTK.  Instead of spending your time  trying to impose your own narrow views on what should be a citadel of free, creative thought, why don't you take an interest in helping us reach the Top 25 Public Universities, or take a lesson from your Governor, and do something to help those kids trapped in terrible poverty, on your door-steps in the Appalachians, get an educational lifeline?

Monday, November 30, 2015

Arsenal's 14-minute flight

Photo: Damian Martinez: Twitter

So Arsenal took a 14-minute flight from London to come and play Norwich City yesterday. 14 minutes! The poor little darlings  couldn't face the thought of a 2-hour train ride.  Come on! I mean, they're footballers, not bloody Royalty. It's a pity that Norwich's notorious instantaneous fog didn't appear and get the plane diverted to Manchester.

Plane Stupid spokesperson Ella Gilbert said that she was a lifelong Arsenal supporter but preferred the team to wait until after the kick-off before humiliating their supporters. Well, Arsenal managed to do both. A few minutes into the game their defender, Koscielny came off with a bad back - presumably from being cooped up on that long flight.  Then Norwich pummeled the poor jet-lagged Gunners. It ended 1-1, but only because Arsenal got lucky.

I plan to go the other way, from Norwich to London, on Dec 26th to watch City play Spurs. Hmm....I wonder if that Embraer is for hire?

Saturday, November 28, 2015

How to Achieve World Peace (and Destroy ISIS, Save Refugees and Staunch Terrorism etc)

Here's my 2 cents, for what it's worth.

ISIS: The terrorist acts in Paris have galvanized desires for another multi-trillion-dollar war in the Middle East, but that is barking up the wrong tree. The main source of Islamic terrorism is young, disaffected kids in the West and their radical clerics, not ISIS. Moreover, a large NATO invasion over there is unlikely to achieve much. If successful, a ground war would eliminate all ISIS territory, but it would not reduce terrorism  in the West unless it were followed by stability in Iraq or Syria, for which there is currently no mechanism. So I think that, for the time being, the present strategy of military containment and diplomacy is the right one. In the end stability will have to come from within Syria and Iraq and from neighboring forces, with our strong encouragement. As for Assad, we may wish for his departure, but a stable society in Syria must be the initial and primary goal.

Terrorism:  The origin of of  Islamic (and other) terrorism is primarily at 'home', in the radicalized inhabitants of Molenbeek, Saint Denis and other areas of immigrant poverty in the West. It is there that our 'war' needs to be prosecuted. But to succeed it must be be a war of ideas and of policing, with more in common with the failed 'war on drugs' than with any military invasion.

We need to control the radicalization of young Muslims in the West. Easier said than done? Sure, but with more teeth than invading Syria or Iraq could have. Our schools need to effectively educate teenage kids that radical Islam is false and wrong.  But we need tougher stuff as well - I would advocate for an outright ban on Radical Islam in the West, even the non-violent kind. No preaching and no advocating it in any circles, even at home.  A ban on Wahabism and Salafism. A ban on associating political preaching within Islam. Is that hypocritical? Why not ban fundamentalists from other religions too? Well, simply because they are far less likely to become terrorists (although it has happened occasionally, including, recently,  here in Knoxville). Moreover, and here's another controversial step: I would suggest a kind of affirmative action in Muslim communities, offering significant financial and other incentives to people willing to provide names of radicalized individuals and 'cells' in their communities. Its not enough to say 'Muslims should be doing more to root out jihadists from within': they need to be incentivized. Radicals need to be identified with all means possible and, before they have had a chance to think of violence, reeducated. Laws should be passed permitting electronic tagging of identified radicals, and there must be  increased border security, preventing direct or indirect travel of anyone to or from Syria or Iraq until peace is reestablished there. Moreover, greatly increased electronic surveillance and interception will be needed. The downside of what I am thinking of is that it would presumably be hugely unconstitutional here in the USA, trampling all over liberty, free speech and privacy rights. It would involve moving towards a Stasi-esque, police-dominated culture in Western communities in which radicals are found, in which thought is controlled and community  members are encouraged to spy on and shop their own family members and friends. How sad! But it would be effective, I think, for now, and maybe not so draconian in the end. After all, Germany has had laws preventing home-grown Nazism for decades. Later on, when the threat recedes, the grip should be released.

The Refugees:  For a number of reasons I would not advocate the rapid settlement of large numbers refugees in the USA. However, fear of terrorism is not one of these reasons. The primary reason  is that any immigration should be driven by the economic needs of the USA, and another is that I'm generally not in favour of population expansion anywhere as goes against  my vision of what the Earth should look like. But we cannot abandon the refugees. We are not blameless here. We invaded Iraq, alienated Iraqi Sunnis, destabilized Syria etc. and this led in no small part to the present strife and the refugee plight. We need to help them, with immediate large, amounts of aid to them in the countries to which they have already fled, followed by controlled, slow immigration of some of them to the rest of the West. They are indeed our problem and we must not ignore them.