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Healx: Viagra creator David Brown sets sights on the web in 'third industrial revolution'

Published 14/09/2015

Viagra hit shelves in 1998, and in one week, one month after launch, 300,000 prescriptions for Viagra were written
Viagra hit shelves in 1998, and in one week, one month after launch, 300,000 prescriptions for Viagra were written

Eventually you and I will be wearing a T-shirt or something that is monitoring our bodily functions in real time," says Dr David Brown, one of the men who invented Viagra.

We're talking about one of his new projects - Healx, a company using machine learning to try and find novel treatments for rare diseases.

He's also working on ways to tackle antibiotic resistance - which he calls a huge problem for humanity. But first we're talking about his upcoming trip to Dublin to speak at the Gillen Markets investment conference at the RDS on September 22.

The idea of the conference is to examine what influential market players are thinking and doing, the impact of an improving US economy, potential increases in interest rates, and what comes next after the crises in Greece and China. Speakers will also focus on whether Ireland is making the same economic mistakes, and discuss what investors can do to protect their portfolios.

Brown, who is something of a polymath, will argue that the world is currently experiencing a third industrial revolution.

"The main theme is what determines an industrial revolution, why we're in the third industrial revolution, and how to invest effectively in the public stock markets," Brown said.

"The analysis I've done on industrial revolutions says there are really three breakthroughs that drive an industrial revolution - a new energy source, a new communications system, and a new financial system. You need all three, and they synergise in ways that are really unpredictable.

"The third one really started in the 90s, it's pretty obvious what the new communications system is - the internet. That really came together in about 1994 and 1995.

"We had all the components of a new communication system from then on and of the three factors, the new communications system has been the leader.

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"The question now is what's the new energy source - if you'd asked three or four years ago I'd have been a little bit hesitant answering that but I think it's very clear now that it's solar power... I think we'll have new nuclear at some point, but at the moment solar I think is the leader, it's really scaleable on a massive scale.

"The new financial system is really interesting, it's probably the furthest behind. What seems to be happening is the internet is driving the new financial system. We're seeing democratisation of finance obviously with peer-to-peer lending, crowdfunding.

"But in a way they're not the big thing, the big thing I think is that some of the internet companies have registered as banks. If you think of Apple and other internet technology companies, they have an enormous customer base, running into the millions, they have an infrastructure and they have the connectivity, and they run at very low costs compared to the companies we have in the current financial system.

"So for instance, Google has tried Google Wallet, it didn't work very well, but it now has a banking licence in Europe, Apple is going down the same track with the iPhone fingerprint sensors."

We probably wouldn't be having this conversation if things had turned out another way. Viagra very nearly didn't get off the ground.

The story begins at Pfizer, where Brown began working in the 1980s. He was the leader of a number of different projects, including one he describes as a low-priority, low-resource endeavour looking for a way to lower blood pressure. Progress was slow because the science and technology was limited.

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Then in 1988 the focus of the project changed. The results the team was getting looked more like a treatment for angina - something which also required a medicinal breakthrough. By 1990 it had made it to the clinical trials stage, but problems early on nearly killed the whole thing off. The trials were too small and the team didn't have the cash to up the patient numbers. By 1993 senior management told Brown that he had three months left to show that the drug could treat angina or they were going to call a halt to the research.

But then, trial subjects reported that they were experiencing overnight erections. The team realised that the drug they were working on would help to dilate blood vessels in the penis and cause an erection.

Brown got extra funding from senior management and carried out a small trial with spectacular results.

Ten out of 12 patients taking the drug reported improved erectile function - with two out of 12 reporting the same thing on the placebo drug. Between 1993 and 1997 larger trials were carried out and eventually the drug was put on the fast track by the US Food and Drug Administration.

It hit shelves in 1998, and in one week, one month after launch, 300,000 prescriptions for Viagra were written.

But now Brown is looking forward - aside from his research on industrial revolutions, he's still trying to invent new drugs.

"I'm a bit of a polymath. I'm still trying to invent drugs, that's for sure. And my main focus is trying to address the growing problem we have with antibiotic resistance. We started a new charity called Antibiotic Research UK, of which I'm a trustee. It's an unpaid position but it's taking a lot of my time. Humanity is heading for a big problem if we don't address that.

"On the new technology side, I am using some new technologies. We've just started a new company in a UK university called Healx which is a machine-learning company, so it's really at the centre of the third industrial revolution, applied to healthcare, and we're trying to solve treatments for really rare diseases. That technology I believe will eventually link to the future of healthcare via the internet.

"Data will be fed via the internet into your own personal database, which will be monitoring your bodily functions and health. This is very blue sky and this is probably 10 or 20 years away. We are working on gene expression profiling, which is a central part of it, and we are applying it to rare diseases in children... and we're trying to find ways of using current drugs to treat the children."

Gavin McLoughlin

Irish Independent

Irish Independent

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