Back off, man. I’m an independent scientist
I emigrated to the Bay Area as an independent scientist three weeks ago. Since then I’ve been planning the revival of Perlstein Lab, which is in post-academic hibernation. After several months of soul searching, PubMed sleuthing and Twitter colloquy, I’ve decided to pursue rare disease drug discovery using the evolutionary pharmacology approach I validated during my Princeton fellowship.
There are over 7,000 rare diseases, which are almost all caused by having two mutant copies of a single gene. En toto rare diseases affect 10% of the population, so 250-300 million people worldwide. Remarkably, many rare disease-causing genes are conserved in all eukaryotes. Using copiously studied genetic model organisms — yeast, worms, flies and zebrafish — for rare disease drug discovery may have its greatest impact on brain diseases, whose underlying mechanisms are still poorly understood. For example, a tsunami of neurodegeneration is massing over the demographic horizon, and we desperately need genetic illumination. And the cherry on top of the sundae of conservation is that common diseases can be modeled by rare diseases.
Besides scientific curiosity and idealism, there are practical reasons to choose rare disease drug discovery. For one, there’s expedited FDA review under the Orphan Drug Act, and a more recent “breakthrough” track, which decrease the time to translate discoveries from the bench to bottles in the pharmacy. Related to clinical trials, the drug repurposing fad — finding new indications for old drugs — dovetails nicely with rare disease drug discovery because the FDA pharmacopeia has plenty of surprises up its sleeve that can skip safety trials (Phase 1) and go straight to efficacy trials (Phase 2 and 3).
The big questions are how to fund and staff this rare disease drug discovery enterprise, and of course where to house it all. I am, after all, an experimentalist. And being a recent transplant, I also happen to be looking for a place to live, so I’ll focus on the search for lab space here, and save funding and staffing for future posts. One of the many professional reasons to relocate the Bay Area is the opportunity to access unconventional lab space outside Academia and Pharma. It looks like I have two ready-to-go options: 1) lease a bench from a life science startup incubator, or 2) join a community lab, sometimes called a biohacker space. There are also more creative options, like carving out a niche in a local academic lab, but the regulatory and administrative hurdles would be non-trivial even if I were to find a magnanimous host.
As of last count, my new home boasts seven sites where lab space can be leased on a monthly basis. Five of these sites are life science startup incubators in the QB3 network, which promotes and advances translational research from the Bay Area UC schools. However, as I mentioned above, there is also a bottom-up alternative sprouting up around the Bay Area, as well as in other cities. Biohacker spaces like BioCurious in Sunnyvale and GenSpace in Brooklyn level the playing field with tech startups and hackathons without compromising safety or reproducibility, and even allow independent scientists to commercialize their results. I’ve been introduced to members of the BioCurious team and I plan to drop in soon.
So, it’s between biotech incubator vs biohacker space. Or is it? A question I keep asking myself for the near-term is: do I need one central lab space, or can I manage projects that are distributed across research sites with unique communal resources? Evidence that the distributed model works is the Crowd4Discovery project, which is currently underway in the Sulzer Lab in New York City while I manage the project remotely. Of course one could also leverage websites like Science Exchange or Assay Depot to source experiments from third-party providers, the way Atul Butte of Stanford Med and others have been doing to great effect.
In these situations, I do what I’ve always done: strategic cold emailing. I scoured the QB3 site for contact@XYZstartup email addresses and blasted out 20 messages; almost half replied within 72 hours. From the subsequent Skype/phone chats and in-person meetings, I gleaned the distribution of startups at QB3: a good mix of companies founded by serial entrepreneurs as well as n00bs. Many of the representatives I spoke to had actually graduated from QB3, which as the name incubator implies only nurtures companies with 5 people or less, after which point they’re ready to leave the nest (or plummet perilously to the ground).
I also got a tour of the East Bay Innovation Center, which is the newest of the QB3 incubator sites. Turns out this space is sublet from an independent commercial entity, as is another QB3 incubator site. Some equipment is communal, like the fridges and freezers and the occasional incubator or shaker. Several of the QB3 folks I chatted with affirmed the positive community ethos. The catch is QB3 costs $900 per bench per month. For some sense of scale, my old lab at Princeton was comprised of 9 benches as defined by QB3, so it would cost $81,000/year to recapitulate a comparable footprint. For the uninitiated, here’s what a typical bench in a basic biomedical research lab looks like:
Lots to think about. If anyone has any other suggestions about where and how to reconstitute Perlstein Lab, I’m all ears. Per usual, the comment thread is open.