Search This Blog

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

These Airplanes Are Fake!

Imagine the leaders of the Cargo Cult Airport leading a group of people around their airport. They bring the people close up to the airplanes but never close enough to actually touch one. They show them the workers but never allow a conversation. If they did they would see that the airplanes are merely wooden replicas and the workers have no clue what they are doing.

This is a biotech website. Those who chose to look will see the white lab coats.

But alas, not all who contribute to the biz are cargo cult scientists. For example, some are there to make the product that goes into the clinical trials. These people have experience and expensive equipment that make biological products. They cannot survive for the long term making wooden replicas. They make real biological products. It is up to the biotech company to use the products to create the dream that one day the airplanes will come.

Now we see someone who has a real concern about the quality of the airplanes/drugs. The airplane/drugs must have certain attributes that are not properly ascertained by looking from a distance.

Long story short, we (my biotech co.) are being discovered. A contract manufacturer is asking questions about how we produced and purified and packaged our drug, an antibody. Not just how, but why did we do what we did. Our answers we not sufficient. The CMO is now doing what it does with less and less help from the little biotech who is paying them to do their job.

The moral of this story is that not all biotech is Cargo Cult. Although it is embarrassing to be on the wrong side of right and wrong, I am pleased to see a contract manufacturing company asking the right questions and getting the wrong answers... and knowing that they are wrong. 

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A River Runs Through It

I'm currently faced with a situation that would have pushed me over the edge in my younger days. We are working in "process development" in a small biotech company. We spent a few years getting by, purifying antibodies on a routine basis. All of our methods seemed to have come from a contract manufacturer who was hired years ago to produce a drug candidate for us. Our people knew nothing to begin with, and after watching the contract manufacturer do their work, they knew very little. What our people did was to find out what buffers were used. That is all they came away with. They did not know why the buffers were chosen but they knew that they worked.

What we have now is a clear "Cargo Cult Science". (CCS)

Our contract manufacturers succeed. They must or they will not continue as an entity. We on the other hand can carry on for years, because we do not have to produce anything other than charts and graphs that can be presented at meetings with affluential people. Contract manufacturers produce our drug and they must not only convince the world that the protein exists, but it is in the very vials that they send forth! And they do it very well. We don't know how.

But we, in this little company, take the proteins in the vials and we take them to the Cargo Cult Airport. We incorporate them into our rituals and invite our investors to sit with us and wait for the airplanes to arrive. So far nothing but a whole lot of money.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Pfizer Shuts Down Several Airports

As part of its integration of Wyeth, Pfizer said it will close a total of six research facilities and ultimately reduce the work occurring at 20 research facilities into five main research campuses and nine specialized units around the world.

What were they doing wrong? Here they are admitting that the planes were not landing. They've restructured. Will the planes land?

It all seems so random. To the investor or the executive they have a new path. But what was really wrong? Why couldn't the millions of dollars, pHDs up the arse, cutting edge technology and the latest advances in medical science produce promising candidates?

Something was missing...

Science, Sequences and God

I used the Henderson–Hasselbalch equation to calculate the amounts of acetic acid and sodium acetate needed for a certain buffer. When the pH of the solution was taken it was exactly what it should have been.  This is the kind of science that the CCS likes.  Now consider the human genome project.  

After a fortune was spent on the project, and more than a few "leaders" of the sequencing became famous, what do we really have? Has anyone ever truly used it logically? It's a bunch of As Ts Gs and Cs.  I originally thought there would be patterns that a computer could pull out that would help us to understand what a gene is.  Unfortunately, most people believe they already know what a gene is.  The genome project has only resulted in the kind of science the CCS dislikes.  You take a finite set and you select a piece of the set that best describes your pre-conceived notion.  In the case of the genome project, they selected five people and they began sequencing their DNA.  When they were done they said, "wallah, the human genome, now go and cure diseases.  But don't ask us how to use this tool."  The "how" is science.  The sequence is a whole bunch of sequencing machines working day and night.  

Another such science is RNAi where you select a set of sequences to knock out a gene.  You select the best one.  You can't lose.

In the Henderson–Hasselbalch example, you can lose.  You can screw up the math and get the wrong pH.  Biotech companies practice the genome project and RNAi type of science.  A company selects a drug or some service and hires "scientists" to prove that it works.  The leadership are university trained scientists who find work in laboratories to be unpleasant and better suited for the lesser intelligent university trained scientists.  

This brings me to the point of this post.  One of the scientists who gained some fame from the genome project has been promoted to NIH director.

Here is the craziest part of it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Randomly Fumbling Through the Day

Quite often in our business we move from one experiment to the next, never analyzing the previous set of data.  After a while people begin to believe that such a logical process is not possible in our special set of circumstances.  

Take for example the case of the gender assay from AcuGen Biolabs Inc.  They claim a 99.9% accuracy in guessing the sex of your baby as soon as 5 weeks after conception.  Due to patent issues, they claim, they are unable to share with anyone the data from where this accuracy was calculated.  Statistically, how many tests would have to be done to verify that they can significantly predict male, female or twins with a 99.9% accuracy?  Can't we test this biotech company to make sure they are not selling a bogus product.  

But kudos for their method of sidestepping the FDA.  Each day we in biotech attempt to create data that we think will satisfy the FDA.  They do not tell anyone ahead of time what to do so we fumble along looking for things we think will help our case.  The real skill then becomes how to avoid exposing bad data.  Randomness allows less than favorable data to be hidden.  Well thought our research leaves you wide open for failure.  And that is a bad business model.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


My career in biotech has been maddening.  But it is not biotechnology that is the issue.  The issue is statistical analysis of data.  This became very clear last week when some of us sat through a course in a software product that analyzes data.  A lot of time was spent debating what a sample was versus what a population was.  We even had people arguing over the term bogus results versus "not validated".  The useful aspect of statistics was not of interest to our group.  

There was a simple illustration about a lady who could tell the difference between tea with milk added versus milk with tea added.  The design of the experiment to test this lady was rigorous.  The people testing the lady were highly skeptical about her claim.  The design of experiment however, left out the possibility of bias on either side of the question.  In the end they all agreed, the lady could tell the order in which her tea and milk were combined.

When Feynman said, "So we really ought to look into theories that don't work, and science that isn't science." he seemed to touching on the powers of statistics to analyze experimental design.  Psychics and people who speak to the dead are best exposed using statistics.  Biotechnology can also be analyzed this way.  The real trick for our future is to find ways to get Biotech and the pharmaceutical industry to allow outside groups to analyze their data and their analysis of their data.  The thought of a group of MDs locking themselves in a conference room to make a recommendation to the FDA regarding research seems absurd to me.  The Design of Experiments is the whole issue behind the Cargo Cult Scientist.  

Monday, March 09, 2009

Large Groups of Humans

Deliver Us From Evil,, is a disturbing documentary that depicts an organization that cannot fail. The Catholic church was organized to promote the christian religion and to perhaps improve the morals of society. What it has become is a highly immoral group of men who do horrible things and protect each other from prosecution. They continue to sell their product, christianity and morality, but they've been outed. For those who choose to open their eyes to reality, the Catholic church is truly a criminal organization.

Something happens to large organizations after they reach a certain level. Banks aren't allowed to fail. Corporations are protected. Think of them as groups of people who got together and started making rules, setting up legal protections and hiring people to advance the cause. Eventually, they reach a certain level. Success. They can't fail. At this point a certain type of person begins to emerge as management material. That person understands that the group must not fail. When enough of these types surround a corporation they begin to protect the organization from any harmful reality. If your church is employing pedophiles who are raping the children of the congregation, you must protect the church from the negative press. When your corporation is losing money, you get creative with the accounting.

Which, of course, brings me to the merger of Merck and Sherring Plough. Their products are meant to make our lives better through chemistry and biology. But they were already big. The problem was that they were not succeeding at making new drugs. They know all about the FDA and fill finish production lines. They are good at many things, but not at creative science. So they merge. They know how to merge. It involves paperwork and meetings. There will be plenty of paperwork and meetings surrounding the merger.

Where will the new improved drugs come from? When large companies fail to develop their pipeline they go to the smaller companies. They must then make decisions that involve millions of company dollars. Decision making becomes more and more beaurocratic. Distancing oneself from accountability while remaining close enough to claim a piece of possible success is an artform. Not a science. The new protectors of Merck/Sherring will have to be very careful yet find replacements for the billion dollar drugs that will be losing patent protection. What will they do? With 90 thousand employees they have plenty of humans working on their cause. What will they do?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Optimism For the Seattle Cargo Cult Airport

"I'm fairly optimistic that this year will see good things for the industry," said ZymoGenetics President Doug Williams.

"We have some great, great research institutions here," said Chris Rivera, the new president of the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association.

Next year at this time I will try and revisit this article. The CCS is not optimistic. It's not about the money. It's about things like RNAi and PhDs trying to be businessmen. It's about the product. In other words, the airplanes. Are they coming in 2009?

Is It Over Yet?

MDRNA Cuts Executive Pay, Freezes Salaries as Cash Runs Out
Luke Timmerman 1/23/09
MDRNA is running out of cash, and is drastically cutting down payroll expenses, according to a source close to the situation. The Bothell, WA-based biotech company (NASDAQ: MRNA) has asked executives to work for no pay, and has frozen employee salaries at $1,250 for the final two weeks of January, according to the source.
Matt Haines, a spokesman for MDRNA, said the company hasn’t done any layoffs, although he declined to comment on specifics about any payroll cuts. “As a public company, we cannot get into details of any cost-cutting we are taking at MDRNA,” Haines said in a voice message.
The company, formerly known as Nastech Pharmaceutical, has been trying to reinvent itself over the past year from a company that specialized in nasal delivery of existing drugs into one that develops new medicines that work via RNA interference, or silencing problematic genes. The company changed its name in June to MDRNA, removed CEO Steven Quay from the top job, and replaced him with Michael French.
The new boss has a track record in RNAi, as a former senior vice president of corporate development at Sirna Therapeutics, a San Francisco RNAi drug developer that was sold to Merck for more than $1.1 billion in October 2006. Still, he joined MDRNA when its work was at the very early stages of development and would require significant capital investment to create something of more value. MDRNA said it has 4 issued patents on RNAi technology, and has 304 pending applications. None of its RNAi work has yet advanced into clinical trials, leaving it behind leaders in the sector like Cambridge, MA-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals.
MDRNA’s effort has also been plagued by its rapidly dwindling cash reserves. The company slashed 23 jobs in August, mostly among people from the nasal delivery business, leaving it with 58 employees at the end of September. But the cuts may have been too little, too late. The company had just $10.9 million in cash and investments left at the end of September, down from more than $41 million when it started the year. At the end of September, MDRNA’s last formal financial update to investors, the company said it had just enough cash to last “into the first quarter of 2009.” Since then, the company has been notified that it is in jeopardy of having its ticker symbol de-listed from the NASDAQ. The company’s stock traded today as low as 25 cents, with a market valuation of just $8 million. It hasn’t announced any new round of investment.
MDRNA in its various forms has been in business since 1983, and never developed a successful marketed product to push it consistently into the black. The company has run up an accumulated deficit of more than $241 million from its beginning through the end of September 2008, according to its most recent quarterly report. When French was hired, his starting base compensation was set at $340,000, and he was given 1.26 million company stock options, according to a regulatory filing.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Is Vytorin a Failure?,8599,1703827,00.html

If one had read Gary Taubes' 'Good Calorie Bad Calorie' they would not have been surprised by the results from Vytorins ENHANCE study. To the Cargo Cult Scientist, statins represent the holy grail of our current state of medical research. Statins are the biggest money makers in the industry. And they don't save lives. Diet and exercise are the best answer but you can't sell them in a pill. One study after another proves that they are not the answer. But we must have an answer. And the FDA knows what that answer must be:

Goodbye Seattle PI

While we expect the loss of Biotech companies we do not enjoy seeing honest people lose their livelihood. We do get pleasure when people like James Bianco and Steve Quay are acknowledged as Cargo Cult leaders. They love money and they love power. Science is a bunch of words to them. The words can be used to extract money from investors. That money is used to create companies that create powerful positions.

Another group of people who live by their words are the fine journalists at the Seattle PI. They make less than 100K per year. They put out a product everyday. When they make a mistake they have to retract what they said. They also serve as a watchdog against government and corporate America. Sadly they are going to be silenced.

In terms of the Cargo Cult world, the newspapers report on the airport. Not just the promises, but the reality of what is happening out there on the runways. They look up to the skies 24 hours a day. Each day they report, " no airplanes have been spotted". Seattle will have only one newspaper. A day will come when a major US city will have no local newspaper. That will be the day when local government becomes as free as a biotech company to report it's own news.

Fires Are Burning Out

Note the ending of the first article and how it leads into the second. investment fund with major stock ownership, which in December wrote to Northstar board members: "It would seem that some of you remain content to pay yourselves salaries from cash that belongs to stockholders while contributing nothing of any positive value in return."

With Cell Therapeutics, which has few, if any, institutional shareholders left since it became a penny stock, it's unlikely there's anyone to write that kind of letter.


Analysts predict that Biotech will lose a third of its publicly traded companies. One third! They're on to us.

Monday, January 05, 2009


I missed the demise of Rosetta out here in Seattle. Merck bought this company back in 2001 for 630 million dollars.

Things were going well in 20004.

Then they discontinued the project last October.

It's a classic Cargo Cult scenario. We have a technology that will change the way drugs are discovered. Where are the drugs? Who is talking about why Rosetta failed to do what it promised? Only the Cargo Cult Scientist is wondering why computer programmers couldn't turn human speculations (medical research) into the fountain of youth. Too much BS was piled too high. So long Rosetta. I know you'll get an office or two in New Jersey but you won't produce any drugs. Silly.