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Inside Andy Grove's World of Bio-IT

By Kevin Davies
Dec. 17, 2007 | Bio-IT World frequently has cause to report the accomplishments of IT visionaries in life sciences. IDG founder Pat McGovern recognized the convergence of IT and life sciences earlier than most, bankrolling the launch of this magazine and, even more significantly, founding the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. Like him, other titans of IT are making profound contributions to medical science.

Which makes Andy Grove's recent rail against biopharma all the more surprising. In an interview on Sharon Begley's November 4 Newsweek  blog coinciding with a speech at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, Grove, the former CEO and chairman of Intel, damned the drug industry for its lack of innovation, and the biomedical bureaucracy for not rewarding risky, translational research.

Since Grove joined Intel in 1968, the number of transistors on a chip has exploded from 1,000 to around 10 billion. By contrast, he says, "the same drug that was the mainstay of Parkinson's treatment in the 1960s, L-dopa, is still the mainstay today." The same is largely true for treating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Alzheimer's disease.

Grove's grousing is personal. After surviving prostate cancer a decade ago, he is now battling Parkinson's disease. "In pharma," Grove says, "if a clinical trial doesn't work ... they just throw [the drug] away, when in fact the [trial data] averages may hide stuff that did work, and something that made patients different." A good drug "wrongfully convicted means the loss of benefits goes on forever."

By contrast, Grove states that everyone in the semiconductor industry shares "a deeply felt conviction that what matters is time to market, or time to money. But you never hear an executive from a pharmaceutical company say, 'Before the end of the year I'm going to have XYZ drug,' the way Steve Jobs said the iPhone would be out on schedule." That drive for understanding, he argues, "is just not present in pharma." Grove also lambastes the peer review process for "creating conformity of thoughts and values" - the modern equivalent of "a Middle Ages guild." The denial of funding and promotion to risk takers, he argues, leads to "more sameness and less innovation."

Life Story
Grove's opinions carry weight not merely because of Intel's success but his own remarkable life story. Andras Grof was born in Hungary in 1936, endured the Nazi and Communist occupations during and after World War II, before emigrating to the U.S. in 1957. He earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Berkeley, and followed Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore from Fairchild Semiconductor to Intel in 1968.

Begley, the Newsweek interviewer, endorsed Grove's sentiments, which she said should be heeded by every congressman, big pharma CEO, and medical center dean who judges tenure and promotion decisions on a scientist's publication record "with no regard to whether the research is leading to something that can alleviate the suffering of humankind."

Grove is certainly right to endorse more risk-taking, translational, and clinical research. He prescribes "a cultural revolution in the research community" to give "wild ducks the opportunity to emerge and quack their way to success. But cultural change can be driven only by action at the top." The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is embracing that notion, but its annual budget is a fraction of that of the NIH.

But it would be daft to suggest that if biopharma simply followed the lead of the semiconductor industry, all would be well. Notwithstanding another mediocre tally of new drug approvals in 2007, big pharma has produced some superb drugs in the past decade. The semiconductor industry doesn't have the complex physiology of the human body - or the FDA for that matter - to contend with. And it would be ludicrous to reverse the improved funding of basic research over the past decade, which supplies the bedrock for all applied science, including drug research.

Many pharma insiders are understandably upset by Grove's dismissal of their dedication to the cause. Maybe the IT community should be doing more to assist pharma rather than hurling criticism. For example, in his excellent "In the Pipeline" blog, chemist Derek Lowe challenged Grove to put his money where his mouth is: "Start your own company," Lowe writes. "You've got the seed money; you can raise plenty more just by waving your hand. Start your own small pharma, your own biotech. Hire a bunch of bright no-nonsense researchers and show us all how it's done. Tell them that you're going to have a drug for Parkinson's by the end of the year, if that's what you think is lacking. Prove me and the rest of the industry wrong."

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