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Why failure is critical to developing new medicines

Scientists who take risks and learn from their failures open up a whole new frontier of possibilities

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The first planet was discovered in 1781, and in October 2021, an actor famous for playing a spaceship captain blasted off into actual space. 3500 years ago we used tree bark to alleviate headaches, and today you can take your pick from a whole aisle of different pain relievers. Planets have been discovered, space has been mapped and explored, vaccines have been created, and diseases have been cured. Our collective knowledge and quality of life have improved immeasurably. So how did we make such monumental advancements?

As far as medication is concerned, the short answer is drug discovery and development. The long answer is also drug discovery and development, but a bit more complicated. In the centuries since tree bark treated headaches and humans discovered the first planet, a lot has changed; We understand now that, much like space exploration itself, creating medications is complex. And often, it starts with experimentation.

“Trial and error is a huge part of our science,” says Elizabeth Asque, genomic research scientist at AbbVie. “You’re never going to learn anything without having some negative results and some failures along the way. What that helps is to narrow the focus of where we should be looking.”

Even with focus and learning at every step of the way, the path to getting a drug through development and to patients is long, expensive, and arduous. Bringing a single potential medication from theory to market can take up to 15 years.

“Ultimately, I’m always thinking of the end goal, the unmet medical need,” says Dr. Tom Hudson, Vice President of R&D and Chief Scientific Officer at AbbVie. “It may seem overwhelming because every time I look at a problem I see 100 causes. How do you get from that overwhelming state to actually having something at the other end?”

In fact, just one in every 1000 therapies tested in a lab makes it to the patient, and from there less than a quarter of them advance past clinical trials. But this is driven by the complex process and in-depth studies required to prove a medication is safe and effective enough for FDA approval. Once developed, tested, and pushed to market, though, a new medication can bring patients new options, more choices, and occasionally a whole new life.

That sense of purpose is personal for Dr. Hudson. “My father was a scientist, and I grew up in the ‘60s – Apollo missions going to the moon was the biggest thing happening. So, although I’m not going around galaxies, I am still exploring a universe of biology.”

Sometimes planets are no longer planets and drugs don’t make it to market, but failure isn’t really a failure if you’ve learned something new. As Elizabeth Asque says, “it’s exactly like space, the next frontier – there are a million billion zillion questions that we can answer and we still don’t know what it does.” Drug discovery and development and space travel are both complex scientific marvels that take time and resources, and often don’t immediately result in what we hoped for, but leave us with the knowledge and the potential to change everyone’s lives for the better.

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