Unintended Consequences

You may know the Viagra story. The one where Pfizer scientists synthesized Sildenafil to treat hypertension but during the first clinical trials found it didn’t work. Instead, they observed the compound an interesting side effect. The story continues with Pfizer essentially creating a new disease and marketing the first oral treatment for that disease – erectile dysfunction. At their peak annual sales of Viagra were nearly $2 billion.

Interesting story, right? But what if the scientists insisted on staying focused on hypertension? Or had just ignored the side effect?

Pharmaceutical companies probably thousands of compounds that didn’t make it to the market because they failed at some point during the clinical trials process. It doesn’t mean those products won’t work for something. It’s likely that at some point in the future, as we better understand individuals genomically, understand how individuals metabolize specific drugs, there will be some real treasures that help sick people. It may take a little while but this is one of the promises of personalized medicine.

Fast-forward a few decades when you have thousands of newly engineered organisms that don’t do what they were supposed to. Engineered Leptospirillum ferrooxidans that doesn’t quite leach copper from the soil efficiently. Modified yeasts that didn’t quite flavor beer the right way. Synthetic endothelial cells that assemble incorrectly and can’t function as blood vessels. This is where things get really interesting.

Google “unintended consequences” and you’ll learn that people actually study unintended consequences.

I say new opportunities are visible by those who seek them and they are often found in unexpected places. That’s one of the things I plan to focus on in this blog.