Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC

Advice and Resources for the Biotech Industry

Advice and Resources for the Biotech Industry

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Bias and Self-Delusion Are A Problem In Both Politics and Science

Coarse adjectives get tossed around the political arena as politicians and pundits try to score points with their supporters. This person is a moron, that one’s an idiot, and so and so is such an imbecile. These three adjectives are nowadays used as interchangeable insults, but what most people don’t understand is that these words used to have distinct scientific definitions in the (now discredited) field of eugenics. Eugenics, which was purported over a century ago to be a legitimate science, was later recognized as nothing more than a house of racial and ethnic bias constructed on a shaky foundation of non-rigorously collected “data” that didn’t stand up to careful scrutiny. “Data” were found and adjusted to fit this theory, rather than gathering up facts and then building a concept around them. Bias often lurks at the core of the thought process used by both politicians and scientists. Before going further, let me be crystal clear about one thing: while both groups suffer from biased thinking, it manifests itself in completely different ways.

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Artificial Intelligence? I'd Settle For The Real Thing!

It’s great when societies take on new initiatives and challenges. Back in the early 1960’s, President John F. Kennedy declared in a speech to the nation, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard….” Examples these days of other difficult technical challenges might include developing self-driving cars, and figuring out ways to enable artificial intelligence to help solve many of our most pressing technical problems. Having said that, working on hard things shouldn’t give us a pass on failing to do easy things properly. Or to put it another way, artificial intelligence shouldn’t give us a pass on using real intelligence. The simple stuff really and truly matters.

As John W. Gardner put it, “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.
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The HPV Vaccine: Preventing Cancer Beats Treating It

You don’t have to be an oncologist to know that fighting cancer is tough. Nearly 1.7 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and about 600,000 will die from the disease. But here’s some good news: overall U.S. cancer deaths have been in a steep decline for over 25 years. Much of this reduction is tied to a decline in smoking, along with early detection of some cancers (e.g. colon), and more effective cancer therapies. While treatments against some particular types of cancer have advanced greatly, it’s still a disease no one wants to face. Fighting an opponent that you can never be really sure you’ve defeated challenges both the physical strength and mental fortitude of those who’ve been diagnosed. I know because I’ve been there.


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Data Irreproducibility: The "Waste, Fraud, and Abuse” of Scientific Research

Waste, fraud, and abuse. We’ve heard the phrase a million times. Politicians tell us the key to making things better in our society is to simply eliminate this unholy trio of troubles. They never bother to detail specifically what they’re referring to, for attempting to do so might set their lips ablaze. Their declarations always elicit feelings of déjà vu. Where, precisely, is the waste located, and how much of it is there? Who, exactly, are the specific groups or individuals that have committed fraud? What types of abuse are we talking about? Is the problem really widespread, or limited to just a few cases? If you’ve really identified the root cause of these problems, what’s it going to take to eliminate them? And since this expression is uttered so frequently, why haven’t these problems been fixed by now? Sadly, this meaningless catchphrase is trotted out whenever the speaker has no real solutions to offer but pretends to have deep insights that are never actually enunciated.


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Is Pharma Really Facing Its Demise?

A widely reported
op-ed piece recently predicted the upcoming financial demise of the pharmaceutical industry. Some have opined, “there’s nowhere to go but down.” While it’s true that the industry faces strong headwinds (many of its own making), I don’t think it’s going to fold anytime soon. Reports of its upcoming demise are, as the saying goes, greatly exaggerated. There’s been an uptick in drug approvals in 2017 (the highest in over a decade), and some of the newest drugs cost upwards of half a million dollars or more. Global sales of biopharma medicines jumped 45 percent from 2006 to 2015. Cancer drug sales in particular are soaring. New biomedical innovations, such as CAR-T immunotherapies and gene modifications using the CRISPR-Cas9 system, appear promising to help treat mankind’s ills.

Let’s take the long view: how has the industry expanded and flourished over the past century? I was recently reading the centennial issue of Forbes, which listed the top 50 U.S. companies (ranked by market cap) from 1917, 1967 (the magazine’s 50
th anniversary), and 2017 (100th anniversary). Comparing these time points provides a fine illustration of just how financially successful the pharmaceutical industry has become over the past one hundred years.

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What to Read To Get the Latest BioPharma/Healthcare Info

One question I’m frequently asked: what do you read to keep up with developments in biopharma? My recommendations are below, but keep in mind that my needs may be different from yours. It depends on an individuals background, their interests, how they plan to use that information, and how much they want to spend. Most people will give disparate answers to this question, and that’s just how it should be.

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Illustration: Josh Lyman

Non-Compete Agreements: Dangerous Liaisons

I was recently contacted by outside counsel for a large biopharma company about doing some consulting work for them. We discussed the general scope of the project by phone, and quickly reached agreement that I would be able to help them with their task. The next step was to sign a consulting agreement, which was par for the course. When I was emailed the form I was pleasantly surprised to see that the agreement was only one and half pages long. Many of the consulting contracts I’ve signed for other organizations are typically eight to ten pages. They force me to carefully step through a minefield of minutiae to ensure that the agreement is fairly written for both parties. This one, I thought, would be easy to review and sign.

Then I read it…


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Sci-Hub vs. iPubSci: Another Look at Accessing Unaffordable Science Journals

Anyone who’s ever tried to access the scientific literature knows that science journals are incredibly expensive. Subscriptions often cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars per journal title. Purchasing individual papers online (often at $30 to $35 apiece) is equally problematic; I’ve
estimated that about three quarters of articles in the scientific literature are secured behind paywalls. Ironically, one of the articles I wrote about the problem of unaffordable science journals is now sequestered behind the Nature Biotechnology paywall (it was originally freely available). The high cost of journals hinders access by both lay people as well as physicians and many scientists (mostly those outside of academia). The unaffordability of science journals serves as an impediment to the success of small biotechnology companies. It makes it difficult for the scientists who work there to keep current with the latest developments in their fields. It’s hard to be competitive as an R&D organization when you can’t afford access to the key papers that may steer your research one way or another. Equally troubling is the other side of the coin: rising costs (to the authors) for publishing papers. These can now exceed $5,000 for some open access journals (in which those who submit the articles pay a fee, rather than the end users), and costs have been rising at a pace much higher than the overall inflation rate.

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Health Insurance Improves Patients Lives

When I was diagnosed with cancer last year, I was glad that I had good health insurance coverage. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but I now know that I really had nothing to worry about. It turns out that having insurance is not really all that important for our health and well-being. I know this because Congressman Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) told us so. As he
put it, “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.” That might be true on some planet, but not on this one. Politifact, which identified a number of studies that showed having health insurance indeed prevents people from dying, later rated this ridiculous claim as “Pants on Fire.”

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Rock Lyrics Predicted Drug Discoveries

Many people know that an eternal link exists between science and music. For example, Russian composer Alexander Borodin was as well known for his
chemical work on aldehydes as his symphonies and string quartets. Many scientists have side careers, or at least hobbies, as musicians. These include NIH Director Francis Collins, who has entertained many people with his singing and guitar playing (note the inlaid mother-of-pearl double helix on the guitar’s fretboard).


What you may have missed is that many rock musicians, who’ve long been associated with illicit drug abuse, clearly envisioned numerous modern pharmaceutical innovations in their songs. I’m not talking about overt drug tracks like J.J. Cale’s Cocaine (popularized by Eric Clapton), the Beatles Doctor Robert, or the Rolling Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper. I’m talkin’ tunes that predated and anticipated later medicinal developments, as reflected in their lyrics. Let me share a few examples.