Here's a sobering thought: Half of those who reach the age of 85 will have Alzheimer's disease. Currently, there's no cure, no treatment, and no drug or therapy in the pipeline.
The answer to this problem and other healthcare challenges could lie in a new approach that links the physical sciences – mathematics, physics, chemistry and engineering – with the bio-sciences while adopting the latest trends in the IT industry.
That was the key message from Dr. Regis B. Kelly, Director, California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), who spoke yesterday at "Unusual Thinkers: The UCSF Track" at Dreamforce 2011 held at San Francisco's Moscone Center.
QB3 is an academic consortium consisting of three University of California campuses (UCB, UCSC & UCSF) working together on "converting science into public benefit" so that the promise of personalized medicine, rational drug design, early diagnosis, and reduced healthcare costs may one day be realized.
Healthcare costs are spiraling out of control due to problems in pharmacology, according to Kelly. He presented a slide illustrating how R&D expenditures for the pharmaceutical industry have increased from $50 billion in '05 to nearly $70 billion in '09, while the number of new drugs to gain FDA approval have steadily declined.
"Using the best science we have we fail 9 our of 10 times, so our basic understanding is lacking," Kelly said.
Furthermore, all drugs have side affects. This is because when we inhibit one protein with a drug it affects 50-1000 others, according to Kelly.
"The drug industry is in a perfect storm. The number of drugs have dropped by half and the cost is too high for development."
(Coincidentally, Andy Grove, co-founder and former CEO of Intel spoke about this topic at a QB3 event this week held at Genentech. Grove said that in terms of time and investment, the closest equivalent process in history to the creation of a single drug is the construction of a single pyramid in ancient Egypt.)
So how will medicine evolve over the next 10 years to improve healthcare and reduce costs? Kelly explained that it will by combining precision diagnosis and empirical pharmacology.
Precision diagnosis doesn't mean your doctor will no longer check your blood pressure and give you a traditional examination. It does, however, consider how individual variations in your genome can have a major impact on how your body specifically responds to disease, drugs, and other therapies.
The idea is to predict exactly how a protein’s function will change if its composition is changed. How a patient will respond to a new therapy should be looked at from a systems perspective, just as engineers do when building models to determine if a circuit will work or how well an airplane will fly.
This will become more practical as genome sequencing gets faster and cheaper, according to Kelly.
As old as human kind, empirical pharmacology is simply experimenting with potential cures until a solution is discovered by accident. With robotics and molecular diagnostics, we'll be able to take a genetics approach to pharmacology and, through trial and error, develop the tools to predict biological processes and then develop cells and microorganisms that provide unique resources such as drugs.
One of the issues of taking a quantitative approach to bio-sciences is that you generate vast amounts of data and that's where Salesforce.com comes into the picture.
Kelly pointed out that the new Salesforce.com headquarters will be located across the street from QB3 in the Mission Bay neighborhood of San Francisco. He said that a meaningful relationship can be forged because the cloud and heterogeneous computing solutions will be essential for the emerging big data problems in biology.
"This is not about getting new robotic systems or algorithms. It's about figuring out a way to prevent you from asking who you are when you are in your 80s," Kelly said.
In addition to Dr. Regis Kelly, the Unusual Thinkers (#df11ucsf) track at Dreamforce featured 7 other leading researchers and practitioners at UCSF.