Today, we are pleased to have a guest blog post on incremental innovation from Eric A. Utt, Ph.D., Director, Worldwide Policy for Pfizer.
When I was growing up, my father used to tell me that “everything that exists in the world now, has always been here; the difference is knowledge.” Our televisions, computers, cars, and washing machines consist of nothing more than what the earth has provided. But it took tens of thousands of years of human knowledge acquisition and invention to get to where we are today, technologically.
The invention of the light bulb, for example, did not occur in a vacuum. Thomas Edison had to rely on the previous innovation of others to develop the first experimental prototypes, proper wires, glass, making techniques and, of course, electricity, before he could develop the first commercially practical incandescent light. Edison’s other major contribution was the invention and development of the electric power grid that enabled electricity to be distributed. He had to do this in order to capitalize on his incandescent light bulb. Hence, “capitalism” is as a driving force behind these inventions.
The Edison example helps us understand how medicines are discovered and developed. Rarely is there a “eureka moment,” when a great discovery can be instantaneously translated from idea to life-saving product. There are many steps between the idea and the moment a new medicine reaches the patients who need it. That doesn’t mean that there are no true “medical breakthroughs.” It just means that those breakthroughs are often the result of years and decades of hard work.
As a microbiologist, I have an obvious interest in antibiotics. Take, for example, the drug isoniazid, which is a mainstay in the treatment of tuberculosis infections. Isoniazid was first synthesized in 1912 by chemists who were exploring the properties of nicotine, a highly addictive and poisonous substance. It was not until 1952 that isoniazid was shown to block the growth of the tuberculosis bacterium. What transpired between 1912 and 1952 can be considered a series of incremental discoveries and observations. Individually, they may seem minor but collectively, these incremental discoveries resulted in the first true anti-tuberculosis drug, giving hope to millions of patients worldwide.
While the discovery of a new and effective anti-tuberculosis drug by itself is reason enough to celebrate, the story does not end there. Little did we know that medical science was on the cusp of launching an entire new treatment paradigm for mental illness. Stay tuned for the rest of this incredible story on my next blog entry.