Saturday, April 21, 2018

Physics saves humanity


Recent news that a blood test could detect early-stage cancer with a 65% accuracy (1), is promising. However, this is not a sensitivity level that makes such technology very useful. Life sciences and healthcare researchers have been suffering from segmented specialization and domain experts in each sub-segment believe that they know everything. This has led to underutilization of available technologies from other industries and solutions that optimize within a narrow context. If the goal is to reach the best possible solution, it is advisable to get out of the labs and look across domains and let some of the egos go.

Healthcare, perennial laggards in the use of information technology, in the prediction, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases is falling further behind. As the engineers figure out autonomous cars and space tourism without breaking a sweat, life sciences and healthcare professionals, steeped in conventionalism, have been pretending that humans are indeed different from machines. Certainly, the policymakers in Washington appear closer to machines as they "retire," with lifetime healthcare benefits after robbing the same from 13 million Americans. And the most powerful one, after figuring out the 140 character idiot box, has been addicted to it just as a robot would be.

Machines are accelerating toward demonstrating higher cognitive capabilities while the frail bodies of the declining species suffer from a lack of acceptance of change. They have been immensely creative at inception. As they stood up in the African Savannah with a feeble architecture that was no match to the beasts that roamed, they courageously exposed themselves to danger. They traveled to every corner of the blue planet on foot and created habitats that are in sync with the environment. They survived a narrow bottleneck of fewer than 15,000 samples as the ice age advanced across the globe. And then, the "modern woman," arrived - and that was bad news. Agriculture, the industrial revolution, and computer technology seem to have made them weaker. Grains made them diabetic, industries have been fuming poison into their greenhouse and technology now appears to set them back.

The fundamental question remains to be that if life indeed is a result of Physics. Before the "God particle," and "gravitational waves," there were more fundamental concepts such as entropy. If entropy has an unambiguous positive slope and more importantly if there is a universal objective function that maximizes entropy, life certainly fits. Life appears to be most efficient compared to natural processes to accelerate entropy and that points to the idea that the creation, maintenance, and eventual destruction of life are driven by physical processes. To reject this hypothesis, one has to prove that life has entropy reducing effects. It does not appear to be so. Organization of life in structures from bacteria to humans appear to accelerate entropy. It is possible that one can mathematically show that the size of colonies of life that we observe is entropy maximizing.

Physics may require life to survive as it may be the best way to maximize an overall objective function. Humans may be saved in spite of themselves, by Physics.


(1) http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/04/blood-test-shows-promise-spotting-early-cancers

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The bane of pharmaceutical R&D

A recent study (1) appears to raise red flags on pharmaceutical research, animal studies and the contemporary scientific process in general. Perhaps it could be new to the authors but most of what they describe have been known to the community for many decades. The following are important considerations in this debate. I state them without proof but there is plenty out there:

(a) A very large percentage of the published studies cannot be replicated
(b) Most of the published studies target proving something rather than the other way around
(c) The quantity of publishing (rather than the quality) is the most important metric for most educational institutions to determine the reward for academics
(d) Big pharma is run by outdated leaders who are trying to churn out incremental medicines to meet shareholder value targets
(e) The drug discovery and development processes are ably assisted by an incompetent regulatory agency with many conflicts of interest
(f) Hypothesis testing in life sciences still clings to a nearly 100 years’ old idea that uncertainty is normally distributed. And most statisticians, encumbered by the agency’s love for “p-value,” will not deviate from the framework. And in the process, they have approved bad drugs, rejected good ones and failed to identify sub-populations who could benefit from the NCE.

So, the authors’ contention that many animal studies are not published at all, albeit interesting, is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a much bigger problem to tackle. The leaders of life sciences companies and their regulators may want to consider retirement, say after 80, as they may need to yield to young leaders who have a higher appreciation of emerging technologies.

The correlation between animal studies that precede the clinic and what happens in humans has been incredibly low for almost a century. They have tried everything from mice, rabbits, dogs, and chimps in an attempt to prove the unprovable. In the process, they reduced animal welfare while simultaneously developing therapies that can only be called, “bad.” The finding that the therapeutic index of marketed drugs seems to decline over time is a warning signal that there are many inefficiencies in the R&D and approval processes.

Technology is advancing. We do not have to stick to regression slide rules to prove or disprove if a drug works anymore. It is time life sciences industry embraced ideas that are transforming every other industry. To make that happen, it will require cleaning the shop and starting over.

Old ideas die hard and older ideas are even worse.

(1) http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/04/clinical-trials-may-be-based-flimsy-animal-data


Sunday, April 1, 2018

Man-made panspermia

Man-made panspermia is an increasing concern for humans as they struggle to understand their role in the universe. Harsh space-time constraints give them a very narrow view of their container that could be a small bubble in a multiverse. And thus far, they have not heard or seen from anybody in their neighborhood even with great efforts to do so. Calculations by a UCL cosmologist who showed that the solar system is about the size of an atom in the city of London, if one were to create a model of the known universe, may provide context to the irrelevance of our existence. Space explorations pursued by the budding species have been messy and may have already contaminated the very areas they use to estimate the probability of life elsewhere. It is ironic that in this "advanced technological age," our own space junk is showering down on us from the heavens.
Physical exploration of close proximities to understand the origins and existence of life is symptomatic of the lack of development of the human psyche. At the turn of last century, there were glimpses of intelligence when science and philosophy came together to explore ideas without toys and data mining. With the advent of computers, the ability of humans to advance abstract ideas has been declining. Who wants to theorize if one can simply grab "big data," and prove any possible hypothesis? This idea is accelerating with clinicians and scientists as they turn to machines to prove what they want to prove. Physics, without significant theoretical advancements for over a century, has been solely focused on colliders and space telescopes as if the ultimate frontier is data. As humans slip down to a regime driven largely by incrementalism, technology, and data, it is worth looking back to an age where abstract thinking made fundamental positive changes.
Religion, the original science, has provided a framework to think. The originators have been unbiased with an objective function that encompassed the entire society. But just as anything else, politics, business and academics included, such pure abstract notions were hijacked for the benefit of a few. The practice of religion, as observed today, has no semblance to the original thinking, just the opposite. Then science came along but it also shows similar attributes. Those who practice this modern religion, optimize within very narrow contexts with no real implications for society. What saved humanity thus far, however, is the sheer quantity of good over bad, perhaps aided by Selection that optimized outcomes over expected life spans. Humans appear to be drifting without any specific goals. Scientists and technologists are speeding down the highway that looks like it is to nowhere. And the onlookers from the pedestrian corridors have succumbed to a lack of understanding of societal utility. They appear to cling to unproven ideas and often have leaders who attempt to divide than unite. 
In a divided world of haves and have-nots, the colored and less colored, tall and short, wide and narrow, young and elderly, urban and sub-urban, sailors and climbers and musicians and mathematicians, we are all nestled in a space of an atom in a city of the size of London. And, there could be an infinite number of such cities.