The future of scientific meetings

One of the very wonderful meeting formats, not mentioned in your story on the future of scientific meetings,1 was that of Kroc conferences, sponsored by the Kroc Foundation. The meetings allowed only 24 participants and met in the Double Arches Ranch near Solvang, California. There was a free-flowing bar, and ideal arrangements for continuing discussion between participants.

The overall director of the meetings was Bob Kroc, Ray's brother. The last meeting, which I co-organized in 1983, was concerned with the physical chemistry of bile and was attended by 12 chemists and 12 biomedical scientists. Much was accomplished.

When Ray died, his widow, Joan Kroc dissolved the foundation. But those of us who were fortunate enough to take part in these meetings have indelible memories of wonderful exchanges that led to all kinds of collaborations.

Alan F. Hofmann
University of California, San Diego


Merck's future

Will Merck's just-announced acquisitions of Glycofi ($400 million) and Abmaxis ($80 million) give Merck the edge it needs?1 Certainly such a strategy is congruent with the "not invented here" tradition: Instead of purchasing clinical-stage molecules, Merck has bought tools to help them develop their own antibody therapeutics that can be fine-tuned for specific applications.

Pete Heifetz
OrPro Therapeutics
San Diego, Calif.

1. F. Hawthorne, "Merck's fall from grace," The Scientist, 20(5):27-33, May 2006.

On foxes and hedgehogs

Re: foxes and hedgehogs.1 Why the gap between phase one and marketing? In my view the wonders of molecular biology, receptorology and combinatorial chemistry produce a myriad of biologically active agents. However, the vast majority are not safe or useful medicines. Our grasp of complex disease is still insufficient to cherry pick promising agents. It has been forgotten that the indications for many medicines (all the classes of psychotropes including Viagra) were fortuitously observed. Further, the long-term, intensive patient care facilities that fostered serendipity have disappeared.

Structuring research day-hospitals in a quest for serendipitous observations may sound ridiculously primitive but at least the agents under study will have passed the medication threshold. However, this is not on anyone's roadmap.

Donald Klein
Columbia University

1. R. Gallagher, "A prescription for pharma," The Scientist, 20(5):13, May 2006.

Refining the h-index

Braun and colleagues recently examined the utility of the h-index (the number h of papers, each of which is cited at least h times) for assessing the impact of journals,1 and drew attention to some differences between the 'top 21' journals ranked according to the h-index and the journal impact factor.2 Their 4-year window, however, is inadequate.

Data from the Web of Science suggest that the h-index for journals increases more-or-less linearly with time until it plateaus at about the twice the cited half-life, so it may be possible to base comparisons on a standard window (e.g., 3 years to be comparable with the journal impact factor), standardized by multiplying by the cited half-life divided by the width of the window (e.g., 3 years). Such an adjustment to the top 21 journals in Braun's table would promote the Journal of the American Chemical Society several places (from rank 20 to rank 6, if no external candidates are considered) and demote Nature Medicine (because of its youth, it has a short cited half-life).

The use of a standard interval, without regard for the publication frequency of the journal or the nature of the discipline, introduces bias into both the journal impact factor and the h-index when applied to journals.

Jerome K. Vanclay
Southern Cross University
Lismore, Australia


1. J.E. Hirsch, "An index to quantify an individual's scientific output," Proc Natl Acad Sci, 102:16569-72, 2005. 2. T. Braun, et al., "A Hirsch-type index for journals," The Scientist, 19(22):8, Nov. 21, 2005.

Conventional treatments vs. gene therapy

While it's true that more conventional approaches can ameliorate the ravages of genetic disease,1 many such treatments have serious drawbacks. It is for this reason that the Gene Therapy Advisory Committee weighs up the risks and benefits of any proposed genetic therapy against those of the best conventional therapy. Even a disease with such a well established treatment as haemophilia might benefit from gene therapy if only to free the patient from the regular injection of recombinant protein.

Terry Hamblin, MD
Professor of Immunohaematology
University of Southampton, UK

1. A. Munnich, "Treating genetic disease today," The Scientist, 20(5):24, May 2006.

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