This week the Today Show on NBC ran a story today looking at love hormones. Many recent studies have come together over the last several years to give us a better understanding of the brain circuits and chemicals that control the emotion of love and bonding.
Another Pill for your Heart
The thing that bothered me about the story that ran today was the notion that we can and even should develop pills to mimic these natural hormones to help us ‘control’ our heart's desires. The story presented the idea that future marriage counselors could give couples a drug to help them fall back in love and reconnect. Matt Lauer even suggested that we could create a drug that would stop people from falling in love at ‘inappropriate times’.
This is CRAZY. It's not crazy to think that science could accomplish this – it probably can. After all, we already have drugs that manage emotions like anxiety, depression and stress – why not add love to the list? What is crazy is to suggest that this is OK or even desirable to have this love drug tool.
We are already an over-drugged society that tries to manage too many of our physiological problems with drugs. Are we now suggesting that we should develop drugs to manage our relationships?
Confessions of a Scientist
I have written in the past about the dangers of micro-managing our biology with drugs. In my opinion, this is one of the great failures of scientific research. Many of us in biomedical research focus on understanding biological mechanisms at the cellular and sub-cellular levels. This has led to breakthroughs in cancer and AIDS drugs that have helped improve the lives of countless people suffering from disease.
The problem is that we often go too far. We often attempt to understand the mechanism of a system – the real nuts and bolts of our biology – for the sole purpose of manipulating it. We feel that when we understand how genes, proteins and other molecules interact then we can understand what goes wrong in disease and we can fix it with a drug.
But usually we understand much less than we think and when we try and fix it we end up causing another problem. This is why the vast majority of drugs fail in clinical trials. Something unexpected goes wrong. You can't really blame the researchers for this. We have about 30,000 genes in our bodies that all interact with each other in some way. Yet, we only have a good understanding of how about 5,000 of the genes really work.
When is a Drug Safe?
A drug makes it through clinical trials when it shows the desired effect and we fail to detect a problem. Now consider this. How sure are we that the drug is not causing a problem that we just didn't look for or were unable to detect in the short clinical trial period?
I went to a symposium last week that had panelists from the drug industry and from the public interest, debating the reason for the poor image of pharmaceutical companies. One of the pharmaceutical representatives, who is the vice president of research and development at Pfizer, stated that when a drug gets through clinical trials the company is only about 1/3 of the way through the research and development phase for that drug.
That means that when a drug goes to market the company is really only getting started at understanding how that drug really works. Does that increase your confidence in the pills you are popping?
Getting Back to the Love Pill
The TODAY show story discussing future love potions did not say that a love drug was in development, only that they believe the science is sophisticated enough to make it happen. But if the science is there and the market will pay for it then some company will eventually capitalize on that. Do you see a problem with that?
Originally, we developed drugs to help people with existing problems improve their lives. But today it seems like we create problems – real or unreal – and then develop another drug to fix it. Where will we draw the line?
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