Starting today, Fred Barbash will be writing the Investing column.

The era of the liberated investor--I count myself among the millions--has arrived. We go forth boldly, exuberantly, rationally, without financial advisers or brokers. We are left, therefore, to our own devices.

But sometimes we wake up in the middle of the night and ask ourselves, "Devices? What devices? Where are they?"

The answer is, they're all around us. My column will try to help us identify them, always with the idea that no matter what the experts warn, we can do it.

Let's start out shamelessly this week by looking at how we can profit from something we all encounter, misery. Everybody's got something wrong, some disease, some malfunction, in them or in a family member. Why should everyone--doctors, pharmacists, optometrists--profit from them, except us?

Our afflictions can give us a special knowledge, which, if used properly and wisely and carefully, can open doors to areas of investment such as pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and medical devices, which are otherwise very hard to penetrate.

A few years ago, an uncle of mine told me that his daughter-in-law had had laser eye surgery to improve her horrendous vision and ward off ever-thickening, ever more expensive glasses--and that it had worked. A smart and resourceful man, he researched the companies responsible--one in particular--and decided to buy. I replicated his research as best I could and decided to buy, too, in much smaller quantities.

Those people who say you shouldn't take tips from your uncle--that's not always good advice. VISX appreciated roughly 500 percent before I sold it. It has since climbed even more, for a grand total return of 2,532.73 percent since 1994. (Such a return, I don't need to tell you, is very rare. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.)

The point here is that because he had this medical need in his family, he learned something earlier and more thoroughly than a good percentage of the rest of the investing public. He didn't just jump willy-nilly. He did his research and then jumped. It paid off for both of us.

This came to mind recently when I heard about David Kliff, an insulin-dependent registered financial planner in Buffalo Grove, Ill., who is publishing the Diabetic Investor and is about to start what may be the first disease-specific mutual fund. In addition to being a financial professional, he felt he had the additional edge of knowing firsthand something about the needs of diabetics in a way nearly impossible for someone with no exposure to the disease.

Reading about him, and talking to him, made me consider my own knowledge as the father of an asthmatic child.

Ask an asthmatic, or the parents of a child with asthma, or any other chronic disease, how many hours and days and weeks they've consumed researching relief; looking for the newest, the most promising, the least burdensome treatment available; and finding out what's in the pipeline.

Now, wading into recombinant DNA is not like drinking Starbucks. Still, you're not prescribing medications, just investing in them.

On the one hand, as Kliff pointed out, decisions we make about diseases in our family might come too much "from our hearts instead of our heads. . . . Your objectivity isn't quite as sharp." (That's why he doesn't think choosing stocks involving our own miseries is a good idea.)

On the other hand, if you're into it already, if you've talked to doctor after doctor, read the literature (I found five asthma-oriented research journals by searching the World Wide Web and two asthma Web sites for nonprofessionals), and kept up with the Food and Drug Administration Web site, you could be ahead of the game.

Kris Jenner, a physician who is also a pharmaceutical and biotech analyst at T. Rowe Price, the Baltimore-based mutual fund complex, gave me some good advice. He said that we should be "very careful" to distinguish between "investing in a drug as opposed to investing in a company . . . because the contribution of that drug to the overall success of the company may or may not be material."

Another warning: With pharmaceuticals and biotech, millions can be invested by a company and the product may never hit the market.

Go with diseases that are--I know of no other way to say it--growth diseases. "Asthma, like diabetes, is a controllable disease," Kliff said. "There's no cure. The projected growth rate in diabetes is 8 to 10 percent. There are lots of disposables," meaning various devices, needles and so forth, that people use to inject insulin and then throw away.

About 16 million Americans are asthmatic. They and their loved ones will pay dearly--if they can--for something that works. Right now, the stuff that works is inadequate, especially for children. Most of the preventives are steroids--which can stunt growth, according to new research--and are administered in ways children find difficult, through inhalers of one sort or the other.

I've long been interested in Merck & Co.'s Singulair, a once-a-day preventive tablet our specialist prescribed for my son.

And I'm following a drug in the Immunex pipeline called Nuvance, a once-a-week asthma controller now in Phase II trials--meaning it's still being tested for safety and may or may not ever come to market.

Each offers lessons in investing in medicine. Introduced in 1998, Singulair had roughly $110 million in sales in the second quarter. But Merck is one of the giants of pharmaceuticals, one of the great long-term investments of our era. The total sales at a company the size of Merck were roughly $8 billion for the quarter, making Singulair a relatively minor star in the company's constellation. (Zocor, a cholesterol reducer, took in $1.09 billion.)

This doesn't mean Merck isn't a good investment--it's just that I wouldn't buy it on the basis of Singulair. On the other hand, I'd know nothing about it had I not researched it on the subject of asthma. So I've gotten an entree into a very hot field, if nothing else.

Merck closed near $70 Friday, roughly $6 higher than its price 52 weeks ago (it has had an up-and-down year) and up 277 percent since September 1994. Its price-to-earnings ratio is about 30, lower than the industry average. It might be a bargain. Pharmaceuticals in general have been depressed recently.

Go to Microsoft's www.moneycentral.com and let its "research wizard" compare Merck with the rest of the industry in 15 or different 20 categories--ranging from projected growth to risk, to the relative cost of the stock at a particular price, to the indebtedness of the company and insider trading.

That and other Web sites will also take you to all of the companies' recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings and quarterly reports--which can be more candid than you might think. These resources were unavailable to ordinary investors two or three years ago--they are another reason why you can contemplate choosing stocks where you might not have before.

Immunex has its own temptations. Immunex (a biotech as opposed to a pharmaceutical company) reported product sales of $125.9 million in the quarter ending June 30. Its revenue growth is based largely on the success of a single drug, Enbrel, a biological treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. Enbrel demonstrates the power of a single popular drug to produce returns for a smaller company.

Immunex stock has quadrupled in value over the past year. It is trading at a price-to-earnings ratio in the 600s, which means expectations for it are sky-high (they really don't come much higher) and it is expensive (so expensive that experts of a certain philosophy would think it crazy to buy it, which hasn't stopped Wall Street analysts from rating it highly).

If Nuvance is successful, similar growth rates would not be shocking. It could be a blockbuster or a non-starter.

"Blockbuster drugs clearly drive pharmaceutical stocks as well as biotechnology stocks," said Jenner, of T. Rowe Price. "But almost by definition it occurs infrequently. Hence the term 'blockbuster.' "

I must stress here that I'm mentioning these products for investment purposes--not for medical purposes. If you're interested for medical use, please see your physician, lest it be hazardous to your health.

And if you're interested for investment purposes in these or other companies in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology fields, be prepared to do a lot of study before committing any money, lest it be hazardous to your wealth.

Fred Barbash has no financial interest in any of the companies mentioned in this column. He can be reached at barbashf@washpost.com or care of The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.