Nahum Kovalski

Tech Magic Helps Test New Drugs Cheaply

Many of the advances that tech brings to the world are hidden -- but their impact becomes obvious after awhile
Illustrative photo of an operating room. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of an operating room. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

When one speaks of the technological revolution we are living through, it is important to appreciate that there are two sides to this brave new world. There is the side that we physically face every day. When you hold your smart phone in your hand, or use a website on your computer, these are examples of how we personally interact with technology.

The other side is hidden from us. It goes on in labs and the back rooms of major businesses and in huge installations of hundreds of thousands of computers. This side of technology actually affects our lives more than we realize. Banking computers [that we never see] make deals at speeds far beyond human capability, and the results of those deals affect our personal savings and the welfare of our banks and our entire economy. When it comes to medicine, technology is essential for allowing us to study genetics and create new devices and medications, at a rate beyond the wildest dreams of researchers of even a decade ago. And all of this flies under the radar until there is a major breakthrough that merits a single article on page 6 of your newspaper.

A company by the name of Emerald Cloud Laboratory (ECL) has created a testing base for new potential drugs. What is unique about this laboratory is that it works far faster than any of the existing equivalent labs. With ECL, what would normally cost millions of dollars and take months to run, can now be generated in the cloud for a couple of dollars and delivered within a day or two. Just for clarification, the term “cloud” refers to a readily accessible field of computers  and effectively endless storage, which together can handle huge tasks, far better than most companies’ internal set of computers. Google and Amazon and Microsoft are leaders in providing  such computer farms or clouds for use by the general public and the business world.

The effect of ECL cannot be underestimated. We are living in a time when new medication’s [like antibiotics] cost a prohibitive amount of money to create. Only well-established companies with huge cash resources can allow themselves to work in this field. As such, the “regular Joe” who has a brilliant idea for a new medication, is effectively stifled from ever testing this idea. When it costs billions of dollars to create one new drug, any technology that reduces costs is immediately welcome.

Ideally, in the near future, huge computer systems in the cloud will be able to analyze the unique molecules (called receptors) on the surface of human cells or bacteria or viruses that are being studied. Once this analysis is done, the cloud (using software that was specially written by a human) will be able to create a new molecule that either blocks or activates these receptors. These newly created drugs still need to be tested on thousands to hundreds of thousands of humans, to prove the positive effects of the new drug but also to identify any side effects. However, the likelihood that this new drug will do what it was .made to do will be much greater than ever, because it was custom-designed to affect one and only one receptor. When the chances of a new drug succeeding in all of its safety and efficacy tests is dramatically increased, this translates into huge savings of money for the testing company. And as such, it makes it possible for the drug company to produce more, effective, drugs for the same money as before. We have a few medications like this today, that target specific receptors, and they do in fact have a very clear positive effect with minimal side effects.

So, when a new resistant bacteria presents itself, it will soon be possible to have a unique medication that targets only this new bacteria without damaging any other parts of the body. While resistance to antibiotics will still be an issue, we will have the technology to overcome it. Hopefully, the same will be able to be said about viruses, which tend to be extremely difficult to combat [unless you were previously vaccinated].

In summary, ECL is hopefully the first step in having factories that produce custom designed medications that have only the specific effects that we wish. And when the day comes that producing new medications is SO cheap that a private person or small company can get involved, you will see a huge spike in the number of new safe medications that will safeguard us from horrible diseases.

Thanks for listening.

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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