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Sunday, April 10, 2016

Born Sick, Commanded to Be Well

A cargo cult is an example of how any religion gets started. People see the complexity of the world and they can't accept not knowing how it works. They need answers. Faced with their ignorance they quickly seek anything that they can understand. Gods have always fit the bill. They created the world in which we live. Don't ask any more questions, just worship.

The actual cargo cults want to believe that someday they will have big metal birds delivering their food and medicine. Rather than focus on obtaining these things via the scientific method they take an easier route. To rectify the situation would be simple, at least in the beginning. Talk to the westerners and ask them how they built the airports. Learn that building your own airport is possible, but it is going to take hard work. They have to move from the simple belief system of religion to the complicated understandings of science and technology and progress at understanding the complexity of life on earth.

This clip of Bill Burr letting go of religion demonstrates a couple elements of the biotech cargo cult science. We often hear from the leaders that they cannot find the right people. The people they have to choose from are the ones the industry has educated and trained. They created us and now they want us to have a different skill set! Once again let me pick on Juno Therapeutics.

Hans Bishop, chief executive officer of Juno, said the state (Washington) needs to provide incentives to biotech companies in order to spur growth from existing companies and to attract small and mid-sized biotech companies to the region. Bishop said the state’s talent pool needs to be built up, which will happen through fostering innovation. He said Juno has had to attract more than half of its 300 employees from out of state.

Juno Therapeutics began when Lawrence Corey met David Fallace on a flight from Boston to Seattle. Fallace was in charge of special opportunities for the Alaska Permanent Fund. Ironic that a fund that wishes to be permanent would invest in biotech start-ups. Larry Corey was running the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The two formed a partnership that got Juno off the ground.

Larry Corey. He once worked with Gertrude Elion, whom we at the CCS love and admire. At a presentation I attended in Colorado she ended with a slide that had a picture of the path she took in research. It went from chemistry to microbiology to biochemistry to medicine and so on. She was asked by a biochem professor how that path would have been altered if she had had the new technologies that we currently have. She said that it would not have mattered. The real work was done by thinking of the scientific problems and not the human constructs of technology. I'm paraphrasing but I believe her point was that research is a journey that takes you places. If you begin with technology and force it to take you to the land of milk and honey you will never get there. Larry Corey, on the other hand, took what Gertrude Elion had begun and headed off to the cargo cults. His career is in leadership, power, and money. In 1987 Corey directed the AIDS Clinical Trials Group, or ACTG, which conducted pivotal clinical trials confirming the use of the antiretroviral drug AZT to reduce maternal-fetal transmission of HIV and the usefulness of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). Horrible research done without a heart and soul. He has authored 12 books and more than 690 scientific publications. Quantity over quality is a cargo cult career skill. Larry Corey has had one hell of a successful career in the cargo cults.

The "permanent fund" that invested in Juno no longer has Fallace and Corey to develop their idea. They have both moved on to other things. One has to wonder why anyone would leave such a promising narrative? Leadership in the cargo cults however requires one to keep moving. You don't want to be around when the followers look up to the skies to see once again that the planes will not be coming. The new leaders of Juno have already laid the foundation for failure. The state of Washington is somehow obstructing their ability to attract the right talent. "Washington state's talent pool needs to be built up, which will happen through fostering innovation." Has Corey innovated? The problems he set out to solve are now being left to people who must emerge from a talent pool that has not yet been built by our leaders. They need government money first!

The talent pool that currently exists in Seattle consists of ex-employees of the cargo cult companies that have come and gone. Resumes of people in Seattle life sciences include the companies that leave many an investor with a bad taste. Bad science is not sustainable nor is a talent pool that comes from such companies. The people naturally change their ideas on how to maintain employment. Like Lawrence Corey, they seek to distance themselves from the situation that makes science fun. That moment you go into the lab in the morning to see how your experiment turned out. The anticipation that your work is leading to bigger and better things. The confidence of mastering skills that once took so much of your time. The talent pool that innovates does not exist in Seattle. But unlike Bill Burr letting his religion go, it is the cargo cults that let their people go. The narrative lives on even though there is no talent to validate.

The problems facing life in the life sciences is daunting. Those who wish to have a career discovering new biotechnologies and helping mankind will soon run up against the need for survival. The likes of Lawrence Corey will be your competition. He, along with the other leaders of Seattle life sciences, have created a talent pool that is not good enough for their latest narratives. My advice to the young scientists is to stay away from biopharma, medical science and the gurus who start companies who seek massive profit. Develop technology, not drugs. Let go of the religion of western medicine. Biotechnology does not have to be synonymous with pharmaceuticals.