A reader writes:
I'm a researcher (grad student) in a fairly clinically oriented lab. We have produced technologies that have entered into clinical trials and have a close relationship with a biotech company pushing this research towards in-clinic therapies. The WSJ article you posted mischaracterizes the difference between academic and biotech research in the realm of medical therapies. It is not that the White Tower pooh-poohs applied therapy oriented research, but that the academic researchers who are often farther removed from the commercial incentives of industry tend to be less optimistic even about their own research. Which can be bad when it delays the availability of a promising new drug, but could be good when it prevents the approval of a poorly understood and potentially harmful therapy.
From my personal experiences, industry research tends to drive towards practical results that will produce a marketible therapy soonest, ie. Is this enough data to get approval for the next trial? Does this trial provide enough evidence to get FDA approval? etc. Whereas translationally-focused academic research tends to hold out for a more complete understanding of how a particular therapy is producing the results seen in trials.
There is something to be said for both approaches. If a therapy shows real improvement of disease in real patients through clinical trials, then Big Pharma may be right to push towards a marketible therapy before all the hows and whys of a drug's mechanism are worked out. But, as the VIOXX catastrophe showed, sometimes patients would be better off if FDA approval required a more complete and basic understanding of how a drug might be working beyond direct clinical results of effectiveness in a few narrowly selected benchmarks.