Thursday, September 22, 2011

Andy Grove on Medical Research's Great Pyramid of Egypt

Andy Grove and the $3 billion California stem cell agency need to talk.

Both have the same matter at the top of their minds – turning research into cures.

Grove, as many readers know, is the almost legendary former CEO of Intel whose interests have long spanned a wider arena than microchips.

Andy Grove
Currently, Grove is keenly focused on an area of science that he sometimes discusses in the context of a question: "key to progress or bridge to nowhere?"

It is an apt question for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which will run out of funds by around 2017 unless it can come up with convincing evidence to persuade state voters that it deserves another multibillion dollar injection of cash. And that is not to mention the hopes and expectations of the millions of voters who approved creation of CIRM seven years ago.

What this is all about is translational medicine, an ill-defined term that generally means taking basic research, refining it, testing it further and developing a means to actually use it on people in clinics. Someplace in all that is the economic necessity to develop a plan that will generate profits for the enterprise that ultimately produces the therapy.

What nags at Grove is the egregiously slow pace of turning out new cures and treatments. He told a UCSF audience last month that 800,000 scientific papers related to new drugs are published annually, but only 20 new drugs come to market each year, according to a blog posting by Adam Mann of the California Institute of Quantitative Bioscience.

Grove said that the time and investment currently needed to create a new drug is about what it took, adjusted for time and inflation, to build the Great Pyramid of Egypt -- 20 years and $1.5 billion.

Grove's message is not new. In a Forbes magazine article in 2008, Kerry Dolan reported that in a speech at a neuroscience conference,
"Grove roundly criticized research funding at the National Institutes of Health, the unwillingness of researchers to share data and the lack of urgency in translating basic science into treatments that can help people. 'What is needed is a cultural revolution that values curiosity, follow-through and a problem-solving orientation and also puts the data being generated in full view, scrutinizable by all.'"
Heretical is what some might call his views, particularly regarding intellectual property. He says "trivial and obvious 'inventions'" are overwhelming the patent system. Overzealous pursuit of IP rights, which are ostensibly given out by the federal government for society's benefit, are keeping products off the market. The result is crippling innovation.

Grove's efforts go beyond rhetoric. He has pumped tens of millions of dollars into medical research in recent years, including stem cells. In 2010, he funded a $1.5 million program at UCSF and UC Berkeley to create a master's degree in translational medicine.

Currently, the California stem cell agency is acutely aware of the need to at least partially fulfill the promises of the 2004 ballot campaign that led to its creation. It has a new chairman, Jonathan Thomas, who is focusing on closer ties to industry in hopes that faster progress can be made. It is altering its grant review review process on its big-ticket rounds in hopes of generating better results. That includes its disease team rounds, which are designed to bring together a broad array of expertise in hopes of moving into clinical trials more quickly.

Grove's proposals are wide-ranging, including changes at the federal level, and not all possible to implement in a short timeframe. But fresh and innovative thinking is what any organization should be seeking. Grove's suggestions could well be of major benefit to California's unique experiment in stem cell research.

Some in the medical research establishment do not take kindly to Grove's suggestions. One writer a few years ago titled his commentary on the former CEO's proposals "Rich, Famous, Smart and Wrong." But clearly not all is well with the progress of drug development.

We do know that Grove, who had prostate cancer and has Parkinson's, is not going to drop his effort any time soon. Today, the latest edition of Science magazine published an article by Grove in which he makes specific recommendations for changes in the Byzantine clinical trial system. Fifty billion dollars a year for biomedical research to produce only 20 new drugs is not good enough. Grove is also to be a keynote speaker at next month's World Stem Cell Summit in Pasadena. The title of his speech? 
"Translational Medicine: Key to Progress or Bridge to Nowhere?"

(An earlier version of this item said that Science would publish the Grove piece tomorrow. The piece is behind a pay wall. If you would like a copy of it, please email a request to me at

Here is a copy of the slides that Grove used in his presentation at UCSF.

Andy Grove's Slides on Translational Medicine

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