The U.S. must fund more biotech innovation – or other countries will catch up faster than you think
The U.S. has approximately 58 percent of the market share in the biotech sector, followed by China with 11 percent. However, this market share is the result of several years of previous research and development (R&D) – it is a present picture of what happened in the past. In the future, this market share will decline unless the federal government makes investments to improve the quality and quantity of U.S. research in biotech.
The effectiveness of current R&D can be evaluated in a variety of ways such as monies invested and the number of patents filed. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the U.S. spends approximately 2.7 percent of GDP on R&D ($476,459.0M), whereas China spends 2 percent ($346,266.3M). However, investment levels do not necessarily translate into goods that end up contributing to innovation.
Patents are a better indication of innovation. The biotech industry relies on patents to protect their investments, making patenting a key tool in the process of translating scientific discoveries that can ultimately benefit patients. In 2020, China filed 1,497,159 patents, a 6.9 percent increase in growth rate. In contrast, the U.S. filed 597,172, a 3.9 percent decline. When it comes to patents filed, China has approximately 45 percent of the world share compared to 18 percent for the U.S.
So how did we get here? The nature of science in academia allows scientists to specialize by dedicating several years to advance discovery research and develop new inventions that can then be licensed by biotech companies. This makes academic science critical to innovation in the U.S. and abroad.
Academic scientists rely on government and foundation grants to pay for R&D, which includes salaries for faculty, investigators and trainees, as well as monies for infrastructure, support personnel and research supplies. Of particular interest to academic scientists to cover these costs is government support such as Research Project Grants, also known as R01 grants, the oldest grant mechanism from the National Institutes of Health. Unfortunately, this funding mechanism is extremely competitive, as applications have a success rate of only about 20 percent. To maximize the chances of getting funded, investigators tend to limit the innovation of their applications, since a project that seems overambitious is discouraged by grant reviewers.
Considering the difficulty in obtaining funding, the limited number of opportunities for scientists to become independent investigators capable of leading their own scientific projects, and the salaries available to pay for scientists with a doctoral degree, it is not surprising that the U.S. is progressively losing its workforce for innovation.
This approach affects the future success of the R&D enterprise in the U.S. Pursuing less innovative work tends to produce scientific results that are more obvious than groundbreaking, and when a discovery is obvious, it cannot be patented, resulting in fewer inventions that go on to benefit patients. Even though there are governmental funding options available for scientists in academia focused on more groundbreaking and translational projects, those options are less coveted by academic scientists who are trying to obtain tenure and long-term funding to cover salaries and other associated laboratory expenses. Therefore, since only a small percent of projects gets funded, the likelihood of scientists interested in pursuing academic science or even research in general keeps declining over time.
Efforts to raise the number of individuals who pursue a scientific education are paying off. However, the number of job openings for those trainees to carry out independent scientific research once they graduate has proved harder to increase. These limitations are not just in the number of faculty openings to pursue academic science, which are in part related to grant funding, but also the low salary available to pay those scientists after they obtain their doctoral degree, which ranges from $53,000 to $65,000, depending on years of experience.
Thus, considering the difficulty in obtaining funding, the limited number of opportunities for scientists to become independent investigators capable of leading their own scientific projects, and the salaries available to pay for scientists with a doctoral degree, it is not surprising that the U.S. is progressively losing its workforce for innovation, which results in fewer patents filed.
Perhaps instead of encouraging scientists to propose less innovative projects in order to increase their chances of getting grants, the U.S. government should give serious consideration to funding investigators for their potential for success -- or the success they have already achieved in contributing to the advancement of science. Such a funding approach should be tiered depending on career stage or years of experience, considering that 42 years old is the median age at which the first R01 is obtained. This suggests that after finishing their training, scientists spend 10 years before they establish themselves as independent academic investigators capable of having the appropriate funds to train the next generation of scientists who will help the U.S. maintain or even expand its market share in the biotech industry for years to come. Patenting should be given more weight as part of the academic endeavor for promotion purposes, or governmental investment in research funding should be increased to support more than just 20 percent of projects.
Remaining at the forefront of biotech innovation will give us the opportunity to not just generate more jobs, but it will also allow us to attract the brightest scientists from all over the world. This talented workforce will go on to train future U.S. scientists and will improve our standard of living by giving us the opportunity to produce the next generation of therapies intended to improve human health.
This problem cannot rely on just one solution, but what is certain is that unless there are more creative changes in funding approaches for scientists in academia, eventually we may be saying “remember when the U.S. was at the forefront of biotech innovation?”
A promising development in science in recent years has been the advancement of technologies that take something natural and use technology to optimize it. This episode features a fascinating example: using tech to optimize psychedelic mushrooms.
These mushrooms have been used for religious, spiritual and medicinal purposes for thousands of years but only in the past several decades have scientists brought psychedelics into the lab to enhance them and maximize their therapeutic value.
Today’s podcast guest, Doug Drysdale, is doing important work to lead this effort. Dr. Drysdale is the CEO of a company called Cybin that has figured out how to make psilocybin more potent, so it can be administered in smaller doses without side effects.
The natural form of psilocybin has been getting increasing buzz in the realm of mental health. Taking doses of these mushrooms appears to help people with anxiety and depression by spurring the development of connections in the brain, an example of neuroplasticity. The process basically shifts the adult brain from being fairly rigid like dried clay into a malleable substance like warm wax - the state of change that's constantly underway in the developing brains of children.
Neuroplasticity in adults seems to unlock some of our default ways of of thinking, the habitual thought patterns that’ve been associated with various mental health problems. Some promising research suggests that psilocybin causes a reset of sorts. It makes way for new, healthier thought patterns.
So what is Dr. Drysdale’s secret weapon to bring even more therapeutic value to psilocybin? It’s a process called deuteration. This process focuses on the hydrogen atoms in psilocybin. These atoms are very light and don’t stick very well to carbon, which is another atom in psilocybin. As a result, the body can easily breaks down the bonds between the hydrogen and carbon atoms. For many people, that means psilocybin gets cleared from the body too quickly, before it can have a therapeutic benefit.
In deuteration, scientists do something simple but ingenious: they replace the hydrogen atoms with a molecule called deuterium. It’s twice as heavy as hydrogen and forms tighter bonds with the carbon. Because these pairs are so rock-steady, they slows down the rate at which psilocybin is metabolized, so it has more sustained effects on our brains.
Cybin isn’t Dr. Drysdale’s first go around at this. He has over 30 years of experience in the healthcare sector. During this time he’s raised around $4 billion of both public and private capital, and has been named Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Before Cybin, he was the founding CEO of a pharmaceutical company called Alvogen, leading it from inception to around $500 million in revenues, across 35 countries. Dr. Drysdale has also been the head of mergers and acquisitions at Actavis Group, leading 15 corporate acquisitions across three continents.
In this episode, Dr. Drysdale walks us through the promising research of his current company, Cybin, and the different therapies he’s developing for anxiety and depression based not just on psilocybin but another psychedelic compound found in plants called DMT. He explains how they seem to have such powerful effects on the brain, as well as the potential for psychedelics to eventually support other use cases, including helping us strive toward higher levels of well-being. He goes on to discuss his views on mindfulness and lifestyle factors - such as optimal nutrition - that could help bring out hte best in psychedelics.
Doug Drysdale full bio
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Cybin development pipeline
Cybin's promising phase 2 research on depression
Johns Hopkins psychedelics research and psilocybin research
Mets owner Steve Cohen invests in psychedelic therapies
Doug Drysdale, CEO of Cybin
Story by Big Think
It is a mystery why humans manifest vast differences in lifespan, health, and susceptibility to infectious diseases. However, a team of international scientists has revealed that the capacity to resist or recover from infections and inflammation (a trait they call “immune resilience”) is one of the major contributors to these differences.
Immune resilience involves controlling inflammation and preserving or rapidly restoring immune activity at any age, explained Weijing He, a study co-author. He and his colleagues discovered that people with the highest level of immune resilience were more likely to live longer, resist infection and recurrence of skin cancer, and survive COVID and sepsis.
Measuring immune resilience
The researchers measured immune resilience in two ways. The first is based on the relative quantities of two types of immune cells, CD4+ T cells and CD8+ T cells. CD4+ T cells coordinate the immune system’s response to pathogens and are often used to measure immune health (with higher levels typically suggesting a stronger immune system). However, in 2021, the researchers found that a low level of CD8+ T cells (which are responsible for killing damaged or infected cells) is also an important indicator of immune health. In fact, patients with high levels of CD4+ T cells and low levels of CD8+ T cells during SARS-CoV-2 and HIV infection were the least likely to develop severe COVID and AIDS.
Individuals with optimal levels of immune resilience were more likely to live longer.
In the same 2021 study, the researchers identified a second measure of immune resilience that involves two gene expression signatures correlated with an infected person’s risk of death. One of the signatures was linked to a higher risk of death; it includes genes related to inflammation — an essential process for jumpstarting the immune system but one that can cause considerable damage if left unbridled. The other signature was linked to a greater chance of survival; it includes genes related to keeping inflammation in check. These genes help the immune system mount a balanced immune response during infection and taper down the response after the threat is gone. The researchers found that participants who expressed the optimal combination of genes lived longer.
Immune resilience and longevity
The researchers assessed levels of immune resilience in nearly 50,000 participants of different ages and with various types of challenges to their immune systems, including acute infections, chronic diseases, and cancers. Their evaluationdemonstrated that individuals with optimal levels of immune resilience were more likely to live longer, resist HIV and influenza infections, resist recurrence of skin cancer after kidney transplant, survive COVID infection, and survive sepsis.
However, a person’s immune resilience fluctuates all the time. Study participants who had optimal immune resilience before common symptomatic viral infections like a cold or the flu experienced a shift in their gene expression to poor immune resilience within 48 hours of symptom onset. As these people recovered from their infection, many gradually returned to the more favorable gene expression levels they had before. However, nearly 30% who once had optimal immune resilience did not fully regain that survival-associated profile by the end of the cold and flu season, even though they had recovered from their illness.
Intriguingly, some people who are 90+ years old still have optimal immune resilience, suggesting that these individuals’ immune systems have an exceptional capacity to control inflammation and rapidly restore proper immune balance.
This could suggest that the recovery phase varies among people and diseases. For example, young female sex workers who had many clients and did not use condoms — and thus were repeatedly exposed to sexually transmitted pathogens — had very low immune resilience. However, most of the sex workers who began reducing their exposure to sexually transmitted pathogens by using condoms and decreasing their number of sex partners experienced an improvement in immune resilience over the next 10 years.
Immune resilience and aging
The researchers found that the proportion of people with optimal immune resilience tended to be highest among the young and lowest among the elderly. The researchers suggest that, as people age, they are exposed to increasingly more health conditions (acute infections, chronic diseases, cancers, etc.) which challenge their immune systems to undergo a “respond-and-recover” cycle. During the response phase, CD8+ T cells and inflammatory gene expression increase, and during the recovery phase, they go back down.
However, over a lifetime of repeated challenges, the immune system is slower to recover, altering a person’s immune resilience. Intriguingly, some people who are 90+ years old still have optimal immune resilience, suggesting that these individuals’ immune systems have an exceptional capacity to control inflammation and rapidly restore proper immune balance despite the many respond-and-recover cycles that their immune systems have faced.
Public health ramifications could be significant. Immune cell and gene expression profile assessments are relatively simple to conduct, and being able to determine a person’s immune resilience can help identify whether someone is at greater risk for developing diseases, how they will respond to treatment, and whether, as well as to what extent, they will recover.