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Hopped up on hyperbole
10-21-2005
by Randall C. Willis  |  Email the author
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In producing Drug Discovery News and DDN Online (our e-mail-based newsletter), our editors and writers wade through hundreds of pages of announcements, research papers, Web sites, and other forms of communication, looking for the most important and most interesting stories to present.
 
Perhaps the hardest part of this job is the need to separate the relevant from the hyperbolic. Luckily, hype is usually easy to spot, if you know the signs. In particular, I speak of two phrases: "paradigm shift" and "disruptive technology". Perhaps more than any others in the drug discovery industry, these phrases have been used and abused to describe everything from ampholytes to zeptomolar detection, agonists to zoonotic therapies.
 
A quick scan through Google shows that the phrase "paradigm shift" occurs more than one million times. Throughout the Internet, you read articles with titles like: "The Coming Paradigm Shift in Pharmaceuticals"; "A Paradigm Shift in Battling Cancer"; and "Paradigm Shift in the Treatment and Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease". Add in unsearchable text and oral presentations, and these statistics likely skyrocket.
 
I am confident that there have been cases historically where our understanding or belief has been dramatically altered by one or more events. For example, there was a time when we did not understand that nucleic acids were the genetic material responsible for the passage of traits from parent to offspring.
However, when you consider the number of times that paradigms have been "shifted", I really think that we have to begin to question our working definitions of paradigm and/or shift. Are there no stable paradigms anymore?
 
At the recent IBC Chips-to-Hits conference in Boston, Genzyme VP of Regulatory Affairs Robert Yocher expressed similar concerns about pharmacogenomics, complaining about trade and commercial media outlets "whipping everybody up about personalized medicine's promise." While believing that the science is valid, Yocher worries that the hype is setting up unrealistic expectations in the general population, and that this hype is starting to impact the people regulating the science, making them act hastily to meet the seemingly growing demand for pharmacogenomic guidance.
 
Such is also the case for the phrase "disruptive technology", which appears almost 150,000 times in a Google search. A more recent invention of the hype machine, "disruptive technology", has been rampantly abused by marketing and media alike.
 
Looking at the situation from purely a marketing perspective, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen succinctly described the problem in his best-selling book, The Innovator's Dilemma:
 
"Amid all the uncertainty surrounding disruptive technologies, managers can always count on one anchor: Experts' forecasts will always be wrong. It is simply impossible to predict, with any useful degree of precision, how disruptive products will be used or how large their markets will be."
 
Until someone can actually show that a technology has triggered a revolutionary change in science, I think the phrase is a little excessive. "Disruptive technology" is something that people can't really say until after a technology has been in practice for several years.
 
How disruptive can a technology be when only a handful of people are using it?
 
For all the benefits that it has provided the scientific and lay communities in the years since its invention, PCR wasn't really a disruptive technology until a large percent of the research population was actually using them. When it was still an experimental practice in the lab of Kary Mullis, PCR was little more than an academic exercise. Although Mullis foresaw its potential, he was as likely to be wrong as to be right.
 
The same holds true for drugs. When I was an undergraduate student in Toronto, interferon was being heralded as the new penicillin, a compound, it seemed, that was capable of treating or curing almost every condition and disease, from acne to yellow fever. No one doubts the importance of interferon as a therapeutic today, but it has not been the panacea that was foretold.
 
Hype is fun. Hype is exciting. Hype is sexy.
 
And for this reason, hype can be dangerous and disappointing. And trust me, when the public paints an industry, they paint it with a very wide brush. That's why we should keep an eye on the rocks while listening to the sirens' song.

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