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Phenome-nal! Science PR goes for gold

28 August 2012
Appeared in BioNews 670

I'll brook no cynicism, the Olympics was a dazzling display of what makes Britain great. Which is to say: marketing, PR and weapons-grade hype.

'Twas ever thus, perhaps? Well, yes. But the Games had to come to London to be tipped over the edge, into the postmodern abyss where reality dissolves into the fizzing froth of planetary mass-media spectacle. A bombastic, £9.3 billion advert-for-itself, a non-stop highlights reel, choreographed so that the national hero lifts the gold as the theme song strains to climax.

We can only be glad that science - which is, after all, concerned with the fundamental nature of things and less their appearance - stayed aloof.

Like hell. Acting in accordance with strict Baudrillardian protocol, BBC News opened the precession of simulacra. It relayed the highlights from a pitch by the country's top PR man, the Carlton TV-trained David Cameron, on the Olympic Games health 'legacy' (1). You haven't got your postmodern head on right if you think it at all odd that Cameron hadn't actually given this speech yet or that the BBC was reporting on an event that happened the next day.

Doing his best P.T. Barnum, Cameron invited attendees at the Global Health Policy Summit at Imperial College in London to roll up, roll up to the national Phenome Centre. 'All the incredible equipment and expertise' that had been fuelling the Olympic anti-doping centre, Cameron said, would be put at the service of 'research into biological markers of health and disease'.

I doubt whether, before he recited that speech, Cameron had the foggiest idea what 'phenome' means. He's not alone. I'd come across the term before but never really grasped it. A phenome is, apparently, a description of all the physical (and behavioural, depending on the definition) traits of an organism, as they are arrived at by the confluence of genetics with environment.

It is, then, a bleeding edge-sounding term for an obscure concept that borders on philosophical wackiness - can an organism ever be so totally described? would we then 'know' everything about it? - and is far out to sea in terms of anything humans can achieve.

Fair dos, though: the P-word could just be a touch of marketing spin on a new centre doing fundamental research on the characteristics of disease. It might unearth new biomarkers which could eventually be used in diagnosis, or show that a previously unidentified group of people are more or less susceptible to a condition. Those would be welcome developments.

But Cameron's hype for the new centre ripped through such modest aspirations. The Phenome Centre 'will produce new forms of drugs and it will lead the world in the development of precision medicine'.

Crikey. A pharmaceutical company will spend $4 to 12 billion (2) for every drug that comes to market. On the other hand, and quite apart from the fact that it's not a drug discovery lab, the Phenome Centre will be sustained for five years by two £5 million investments from the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the National Institutes of Health Research. How it will get the kind of return on investment beyond pharma execs' wildest dreams by discovering 'new forms of drugs' is unclear.

The attendant MRC press release (3) is perfectly constructed to avoid such speechwriter's slips but still hypes the Phenome Centre to the limit of credulity. Here, the Centre will rather 'help' clinicians to develop improved medicines; it will 'aid' researchers in discovering 'new, safer and more targeted treatments'.

The release concludes with a list of statements attributed to MRC, government and partner-company bigwigs. Read in succession it's like the transcript of hip-hop's weirdest posse cut; the Grand Panjandrums of Science trying to outshine each other, each offering more and more extravagant props to the 'ground-breaking', 'innovative', 'world-class', 'world-leading', 'first-of-a-kind', 'totally blinging' (I might have made one of those up) centre.

Press releases are laid up like this so that the journalists who regurgitate them get to feel like they're big boys and girls by choosing which quotes to use and where to put them. Predictably, with the UK in the grip of Olympomania, the MRC release was a roaring success, retold in several papers.

We live in the PR age and fully expect communication from any institution or government department to be rife with self-serving distortion. That's a shame. What's worse is that in science, where 'churnalism' (uncritical regurgitation of press releases) has always been a problem, such distortions go entirely unchecked.

Back on planet earth, big pharma started sounding alarm bells about the state of its pipelines about a quarter of a century ago. Since then all manner of speculative biotech investment bubbles have been inflated in the search for the next blockbuster. Each of these bubbles is buoyed by the hot air of a thousand press releases and news reports extrapolating promising early results into 'innovative therapies' for various conditions. To date, few have delivered.

But that's science, kids - they wouldn't call them experiments if they knew how they were going to pan out. Only you can't say that to a public in the grip of spending cuts. No, no - relatively paltry £10 million investments have to carry 'the potential to revolutionise the way in which we treat a wide range of diseases' (MRC press release statement attributed to Dame Sally Davies, England's chief medical officer).

And then, when such investments fall short of their paradigm-shifting potential, who's the wiser? I don't foresee angry mobs carrying flaming torches to the doors of the Phenome Centre when the revolutionary treatments fail to materialise. Anyway, by then some new approach will be flavour of the month.

The life sciences hype-cycle can look as futile as Sir Chris Hoy chasing his own tail endlessly round a velodrome. Of course to say so is devilishly unpatriotic - this kind of PR onslaught is what Britain does best.

1) David Cameron promises Olympic Games health 'legacy'
BBC News |  1 August 2012
2) The Truly Staggering Cost Of Inventing New Drugs
Forbes |  10 February 2012
3) A phenomenal legacy for London 2012
Medical Research Council |  1 August 2012
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