The Hype Cycle in Medical Research: From Apple to Vaccines

The Hype Cycle in Medical Research: From Apple to Vaccines

03.12.12 | By Kate Connors

Writer Carl Zimmer had a thought-provoking book review in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend. He discusses medical research through the lens of analyst Jackie Fenn's "Hype Cycle," in which innovations encounter different phases: the initial "Peak of Inflated Expectations," the eventual and disappointing "Trough of Disillusionment," and, for the lucky few that successfully rebuild, the "Slope of Enlightenment."

For example, the first book that he reviews, Ricki Lewis's "The Forever Fix," details the history of gene therapy. Initially seen as a technology that could revolutionize how we treat diseases, and subject to tremendous hype, gene therapy had a quick ascent to the Peak of Inflated Expectations.

When initial research didn't pan out, gene therapy nose-dived into the Trough of Disillusionment. However, as scientists persevered, and identified some solutions that helped address the causes of those early failures, gene therapy gradually rebounded toward the Slope of Enlightenment; research in this area continues today.

It's a common predicament in medical research. We read articles about a compound that creates a response in rats, and we clamor for the medicine. Unfortunately, research takes a long time, and it is fraught with failure, with disappointments, with unanticipated complications. And that early excitement only makes an eventual disappointment that much worse.

Zimmer makes the case much more eloquently than I, as does this chart:

"Over the past two centuries, medical research has yielded some awesome treatments: smallpox wiped out with vaccines, deadly bacteria thwarted by antibiotics, face transplants. But when we look back across history, we forget the many years of failure and struggle behind each of these advances.

"This foreshortened view distorts our expectations for research taking place today. We want to believe that every successful experiment means that another grand victory is weeks away. Big stories appear in the press about the next big thing. And then, as the years pass, the next big thing often fails to materialize. We are left with false hope, and the next big thing gets a reputation as the next big lie."

And, as my colleague Kaelan Hollon said to me as we were discussing Zimmer's piece, the age of Apple products hasn't helped matters, since the patients who are awaiting medical breakthroughs are the same people who see a new version of an iPhone released on a regular basis.

It calls to mind an article I read in advance of the recent iPad announcement. It said something along the lines of how Apple hadn't released a new iPad in nearly a year, so they were almost overdue.

That only serves to make the "Peak of Inflated Expectations" that much higher - which makes the drop that much longer - for the companies that put their all, and billions of dollars, into the medical research that confronts a reality in which most of the time, it doesn't pan out.

But when it does, it's very much worth it.

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