Alexey Guzey on progress in the life sciences

I already linked to this piece, but wanted to recommend it again.  I don’t agree with all of the points, but it has many excellent arguments, here is one excerpt from the opening section:

I think that the perception of stagnation in science – and in biology specifically – is basically fake news, driven by technological hedonic treadmill and nostalgia. We rapidly adapt to technological advances – however big they are – and we always idealize the past – however terrible it was.

I mean – we can just go to Wikipedia’s 2018 in science (a) and see how much progress we made last year:

  • first bionic hand with a sense of touch that can be worn outside a laboratory
  • development of a new 3D bioprinting technique, which allows the more accurate printing of soft tissue organs, such as lungs
  • a method through which the human innate immune system may possibly be trained to more efficiently respond to diseases and infections
  • a new form of biomaterial based delivery system for therapeutic drugs, which only release their cargo under certain physiological conditions, thereby potentially reducing drug side-effects in patients
  • an announcement of human clinical trials, that will encompass the use of CRISPR technology to modify the T cells of patients with multiple myeloma, sarcoma and melanoma cancers, to allow the cells to more effectively combat the cancers, the first of their kind trials in the US
  • a blood test (or liquid biopsy) that can detect eight common cancer tumors early. The new test, based on cancer-related DNA and proteins found in the blood, produced 70% positive results in the tumor-types studied in 1005 patients
  • a method of turning skin cells into stem cells, with the use of CRISPR
  • the creation of two monkey clones for the first time
  • a paper which presents possible evidence that naked mole-rats do not face increased mortality risk due to aging

Doesn’t seem like much? Here’s the kicker: this is not 2018. This is January 2018.


Why not link to his website too?

'I’m an independent researcher with background in Economics, Mathematics, and Cognitive Science. I am supported by Emergent Ventures.'

And really, who can resist highlighting the thoughts of someone who writes on 'How to use your wife/husband/gf/bf correctly' -


There is evidence elsewhere of declining ROI for big pharma companies - that the cost to get a drug to market is increasing etc. Not sure how to square that with this?

Pills are yesterday's technology, the drug companies need a new model.

Big pharma doesn't do innovation anymore, they buy smaller creative companies. The cost of regulation continues to increase as the FDA wants to know how the drug actually works.

Yet all of those discoveries combined can't compare to even one of e.g. antibiotics, the Green Revolution or modern anaesthesia, while costing far more resources to develop. The scientific stagnation argument isn't that scientific discoveries aren't happening or are happening too slowly. The argument is that scientific discoveries are getting narrower and of less practical significance, while increasing (super)exponentially in cost. The list quoted does nothing to refute this, and in fact supports it since the examples given are really narrow.

It’s happening every day. There wasn’t an innovation like antibiotics every day.
Innovation isn’t just the big breakthroughs. It’s also the steady accumulation of improvements. This steady flow in the life sciences seems to be pretty healthy these days.

Antibiotics were known for around a 100 of years. And there are now about 100 of them. So on average 1 per year, and many are pretty easy to find (they just checked all the fungi and plants for any antibacterial activity). Nowadays, there are unique ways to treat many different diseases per year, sure many of those are for orphan diseases or close to that. There are no longer broad strokes, there are now precision targeted cures. Yep, these are not as cool to talk about for the general population, but there are dozens and dozens per year. What else do you hope for? Messages like "we cured ALL the cancer", "we stopped the aging forever"? They are working on that as well, but realistically, that takes time.

Most scientific discoveries are by nature narrow. Antibiotics, which you cite, are highly specific to certain bacteria. Penicillin doesn't work for everything. At the same time a narrow discovery could lead to broader application. To pick something on the list, the bionic hand could be re-purposed to be a bionic foot, or leg or arm. Rewards for innovation should be high to encourage this kind of work.

Also rewards should b high so as to combine liquidity and talent so the innovator can add / improve product lines

Let's think about this a moment. There's a low hanging fruit problem here. There are probably only a few really 'broad spectrum' antibiotics out there and since they work so broadly it's sensible that they were among the first discovered. Before DNA sequencing, data mining etc. you could easily stumble upon something that kills 1% of bacteria and not even notice it...even though that 1% is a type that kills lots of people. But find something that kills 90% and it's hard to miss.

But 99 antibiotics that kill only 1 type that represents 1% of infections each is an accomplishment that is probably more powerful than penicillin.

There are, of course, a lot of great current developments in the life sciences. There are also, of course, an enormous number of life scientists. The question of "stagnation" is only meaningful if asked in terms of ratios: the ratio of progress to costs, or the ratio of good science to junk. Otherwise, it is as simple-minded and un-illuminating to list a few great things and claim all is rosy as it is to focus only on hype and p-hacking and declare everything is horrible.

Well, the cost of science always rises. Back in middle ages, just making two pieces of polished glass and sticking them in the tube was an achievement and moved the science / technology strides ahead. Nowadays, you need multimillion dollar machinery just to make one routine, yet extremely precise experiment.

Good point

Thursday assorted links
by Tyler Cowen July 18, 2019

Donald Pretari
July 18, 2019 at 3:54 pm
#3...Possibly the worst talk I've heard this year. Brain Plasticity and Genetic Transfer are major scientific developments, and I'm at a loss to understand where he gets the idea that he can sensibly comment on every area of knowledge known to man. "

That was in response to Thiel claiming science was currently a cut de sac where scientists brag about trivial discoveries. I call this one for me.

Thiel has no background or training in science. He was a lawyer, investor, hedge fund guy, got in early on Facebook. He was a cofounder at Paypal. He's not a programmer and doesn't really know any science.

He's a good example of the "technological hedonic treadmill". He's a billionaire and can buy anything anyone could want except radical life extension. He has to live a normal life span like the rest of us schmucks and so things just aren't good enough until he can purchase another more life.

Solid comment, I award you 5 internet points

Well, this seems like real progress in its way too.

Or is it a lack of progress? Certainly feels like a person wrote this, and not a bot.

MS Aug. 5 posted the above optimistic review of the new machine age about to spread bounty and profits globally. Very upbeat.

Let us hope.

Having probably had my life saved by the first cancer-fighting monoclonal antibody drug back in 1997, I remain impressed by the steady trickle of medical advances.

But they do take time to test.

Plus, as Tyler has pointed out, there aren't many obvious low-hanging fruit left.

"there aren't many obvious low-hanging fruit left": I have yet to see any use of "low-hanging fruit" that isn't an entirely circular argument.

My dad was saved from melanoma by one of the drugs that resulted from the recent Nobels' discoveries about deregulating the immune system

NYTimes says a few companies have strong new Ebola drugs, too

I'd like to see progress in repair of neural tissue and wiping out the train-wreck, single-allelle genetic diseases.

Cancer, yes, it seems we're very close to figuring out how to arm the immune system against cancer cells.

You know what? I am concerned. I mean I am a simple man from Orem, Utah, but I can not understand why our government will allow Disney to profit from communist propaganda. Shouldn't the movie have been banned? Walt Disney famously warned America abour communist infiltrarion in the arts. I think he would feel disgust if he knew the company he created is now being used as mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

That is the imposter.

No, it is not. It has nothing to do with you.

First and second posts today, one of them must be wrong!

One wouldn't expect Neil Young (yes, that Neil Young) to help with advancements in neurology, but he has. It's about three-quarters down in this long article:

I don't think anyone's really claiming that we don't have continued research and development in the life sciences, just that the innovations haven't ultimately made real impacts.

Where are the patients surviving off of 3D printed lungs? Why did I just see a man with a completely non-feeling prosthetic hand on the street last week? That's right - because the "innovations" are oversold in media press releases.

The challenge is that the "bench to bedside" path is only getting longer, and specialization in the sciences means that the people who say, invent a way of creating a super soft, tissue-like bio-compatible mesh (that "3D printing" innovation) have no real plans to see it used - just that it "could create a replica of an entire organ."

"...the "bench to bedside" path is only getting longer, and specialization in the sciences means that the people who say, invent a way of creating a super soft, tissue-like bio-compatible mesh (that "3D printing" innovation) have no real plans to see it used..."

Bioscience and specifically medicine have long been on the same page as the military as far as their progress goes. Yes, both have yielded some extraordinary improvements. However, both have increasingly extended timelines between the original breakthrough and a deployable product...which itself is horrifically expensive, even in its later stages.

Here's an interesting question: high-tech imaging machines of various sizes and shapes have been around since I was a teenager, yet despite a half-century of increasingly broad penetration, they still allegedly cost almost as much as when they first came out--or at least that's the argument when you're given the bill for your MRI.

Science may well be non-stagnant. The deployable technologies the science makes possible, however, are. And that's a serious problem. Ordinary people aren't going to continue to having their tax dollars spent on what they perceive to be frivolous play in the technology sandbox without practical results.

Hmmm . . . how can an enthusiastic account of innovation in biological sciences not be at least somewhat startling and unsettling?

" . . . we always idealize the past . . ."--ohhh? Do tell. (Was this the past of "the history of science" being invoked, that of the history of applied technology, that of the history of biology itself, or just plain ol' all-encompassing history? Supporting data may yet be collected.)

Biological sciences are the among the most dangerous yet to've been unleashed upon unsuspecting humanity. In doubt? Look at the recent career of Purdue Pharma and the way it conducted its "clinical trials" in public: all kinds of elites and professionals in business, research, medicine, marketing, putatively "regulatory" agencies, bureaucrats at every level of American "governance" helped thousands and tens of thousands straight into legal opioid addiction.

" . . . , in holding scientific research and discovery in respect . . . we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite," a sober and credible 34th US President once said.

I disagree that "an excellent argument" is possible when the underlying claim is created from the whole cloth. Who is it, exactly, that claims the biological science is "slowing down" or "stagnating"? Why in the world would anyone with a current understanding of the applied OR the theoretical literature make this claim? And if an expert is making such a claim, isn't it likely that s/he is discussing a specific aspect of science? (Which would (obviously, I'd hope) require a careful articulation of what s/he means BEFORE any clumsy attempt to refute it.)

Yep, I was going to comment on the same lines. Guzey did a lot of work, and he's clearly a smart guy, but with either a lot of naivete or strange priors.

"Stagnation in science – and in biology specifically": what? In the past several years we've seen CRISPR, fMRI, greater awareness of biomes that we largely ignored previously such as the ones in our guts and deep below the earth's surface, etc. etc. etc. The payoffs from those discoveries may be in the distant future but it took what, a century and a half to progress from Michael Faraday to the Tesla?

So I read his conclusions with interest but also with ... perhaps not skepticism, but wariness.

Glaring absence: any progress in Physics, King of the Sciences. Now becoming the Cloistered Monk of Sciences.

A physicist I can't recall wrote a blog post some months ago. She said the particle physics are basically all figured out. Short of disappearing beyond finite matter and coming back to tell everybody about it, we're done.

Not a physicist, nor even a student of physics, so happy to know otherwise.

A sting of mutiny is singularly available with delayed gratification, though apparently it has settled on leniency and insuination, or a modicum of pathos.

quoting the summaries of papers with flashy results is always going to make it seem like a field is progressing rapidly (especially in the broad domain of life sciences). Lets see 10 years from now which of these bullet points makes it to the market

The list presented is a list of new applications of existing tech to medicine, not deeper or new understanding of the underlying mechanisms. Crispr is amazing, but we didn't invent it; we noticed it at work in a bacteria and stole it wholecloth. Why aren't we learning enough about organic chemistry to invent our own systems like crispr? Building a prosthetic hand is cool, but not really life science, where is the regrown hand? Listing a bunch of unimpressive things, and then saying "not impressed, well that was just January" doesn't give me much confidence that there were more impressive accomplishments in feburary, or the rest of the years either.

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