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Pfizer at the British Science Festival 2016

Pfizer is a proud sponsor of this year’s British Science Festival. Dr. Michael Linden, Head of the Genetic Medicine Institute and Vice President of Gene Therapy, will be hosting a talk at the festival on gene therapy. Ahead of his talk, Dr Linden provides an insight into the common myth surrounding medicine discovery…The Eureka Myth.

A lone scientist, testing combinations of ingredients over and over again until finally, one day, they make a ‘eureka’ discovery. This is how many people think new medicines are invented.

Alexander Fleming’s untidiness, which led to the contamination of his Petri dish and the subsequent discovery of penicillin, has much to do with perpetuating this myth.1   

But such accidental discoveries are very much the exception, rather than the rule. The average medicine takes 12 years and immeasurable dedication from our scientists to create.2   Moreover, researching and developing a new medicine is so complex that around 19 out of every 20 early discoveries will fail before reaching patients.2

In fact, even Alexander Fleming didn’t have an ‘eureka’ moment. While his discovery would later prove to save millions of lives, he personally tried and failed to prove its potential, finally abandoning his work in 1934.1 It wasn’t until four years later, a decade after his early discovery, that researchers Howard Florey and Ernst Chain proved penicillin could make people better.3 But they hit a huge stumbling block, it was extremely difficult to isolate enough penicillin to treat even one person.4

After this, Florey and Chain had no way to produce the medicine to meet demand. This required expertise from larger chemical companies in America, who finally brought penicillin to the masses.5

In this way, medicine discovery is more a journey of small steps forward in understanding, made up of successes and failures, rather than ‘eureka’ moments. Collectively, these steps can save billions of lives. 

The journey of discovery has been further advanced by the invention of new tools and technologies which change the way we can explore and understand the human physiology.  Take the introduction of the microscope, which enabled us to look into cells for the first time. This led to the concept of germ theory and opened the door to research into the identification of disease-causing germs and potential life-saving treatments.6

We have never known more about the human body than we do today.  More recently, we have learned the blueprint for making a human being thanks to the Human Genome Project, an international research effort to sequence the human genome and identify the genes it contains.7 It took over 15 years, approximately $3 billion8 and countless scientists from 20 institutions in six countries9 – most definitely no lone scientists shouting ‘eureka’ here. 

The aim of the Human Genome Project is to help us understand which genes cause disease and now more than 1,800 disease genes have been identified.10

Once we know which ‘faulty’ genes cause us to become ill, we can research potential treatments to repair or replace them. These are known as gene therapies. 

This is what we do at the Pfizer Genetic Medicine Institute.

We work in teams of scientists, with other companies, universities, experts and patients groups from all over the world to accelerate the discovery of new and effective gene therapies, helping to bring them from the laboratory to patients.

Each small discovery we make brings us closer to being able to treat patients for some of the most devastating genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis and haemophilia.  

While scientists rarely shout ‘eureka’, we very much hope that patients will one day experience those euphoric moments as their symptoms are treated or their diseases are even cured. 

'I Am Science' is a Pfizer campaign to celebrate our scientists’ achievements and inspire future generations of science and business leaders; leaders who through their knowledge, experience and dedication have the power to change the future.

Find out more about I Am Science.

References

  1. ABPI. Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin. Available at: http://www.abpischools.org.uk/page/modules/infectiousdiseases_timeline/timeline6.cfm  [Accessed July 2016].
  2. ABPI, (2015). Time to Flourish. Inside Innovation: The Medicine Development Process. [image] Available at: http://www.abpi.org.uk/our-work/library/industry/Documents/Medicine%20development%20process.pdf  [accessed July 2016]
  3. Chemical Heritage Foundation. Howard Walter Florey and Ernst Boris Chain. Available at: http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/online-resources/chemistry-in-history/themes/pharmaceuticals/preventing-and-treating-infectious-diseases/florey-and-chain.aspx [Accessed July 2016].
  4. Brighthub. Fleming, Florey & Chain: The Discovery and Development of Penicillin. Available at: http://www.brighthub.com/science/medical/articles/12679.aspx [Accessed July 2016].
  5. CS. Penicillin Production through Deep-tank Fermentation. Available at: https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/penicillin.html [Accessed July 2016].
  6. Big Picture. The history of germ theory. https://bigpictureeducation.com/history-germ-theory [Accessed July 2016].
  7. National Human Genome Research Institute. An Overview of the Human Genome Project. Available at: https://www.genome.gov/12011238/an-overview-of-the-human-genome-project/ [Accessed July 2016].
  8. Fallows, J. (2013). The Atlantic. When will genomics cure cancer? Available at: https://www.genome.gov/pages/about/nachgr/feb2014agendadocs/fallowsatlanticarticle.pdf [Accessed July 2016].
  9. Your Genome. Who was involved in the Human Genome Project? Available at: http://www.yourgenome.org/stories/who-was-involved-in-the-human-genome-project [Accessed July 2016].
  10. Genetics Home Reference. BRCA1. Available at: https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/gene/BRCA1 [Accessed July 2016].

September 2016/PP-PFE-GBR-0217