Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Barriers to medical advancements and the silly people that perpetuate them.

I read an article on CNN today that really cramped my crotch: Many studies great news for mice, not so much for humans

Besides the fact that it’s misleading and poorly researched, the commentary fails to disclose one very important aspect limiting the translation of bench-top biomedical research to clinical practice – profitability.

Here’s the skinny: sometimes, academic scientists can cure diseases in lab mice. Often, that’s where the story ends. Basic biomedical research infrequently becomes real-world application. There are significant reasons for this beyond those discussed in the CNN article, and they are multifold:

First, academicians aren’t particularly interested in profiting monetarily from discovery. Sounds silly, right? Unfortunately, it’s generally true. Most academics aren’t beholden to academia because they want to be rich. I’m not claiming that everyone conducting biomedical research at a university is altruistic, but if money were a pressing issue, they’d probably work in industry where they could make truckloads of it. Furthermore, it’s somewhat frowned upon in the scientific community to be all about da benjamins. I guess because researchers are supposed to be in it for the greater good, or fanatical about the integrity of our work, or something like that. Whatever the reasons, academics seldom turn their biomedical research discoveries into tangible, patentable, and marketable products (read: medicines).

Second, industry doesn’t care what academics do.
Admittedly, I’m exaggerating. Yet, ask any employee of a pharmaceutical company’s research and development team about this, and you’ll find the truth isn’t too far fetched. Industry is about profit. Drug companies have one major goal: make money. If they intend to develop a drug and market it, they require near certainty that the drug will sell. Unfortunately, diseases and/or novel therapeutic modalities that interest academics because they’re rare or understudied, usually carry the least potential profit for pharmaceutical companies – because they’re rare and understudied. Furthermore, communication between academia and industry is abysmal, preventing even those ideas which might be of mutual benefit from propagating in fertile soil. Many researchers are working on closing these gaps; still, the sharing of intellectual property between academia and industry can best be described as “throwing it over the fence.” As a result, few if any academic biomedical research discoveries are subsequently translated by industry into tangible, patentable, and marketable pharmaceuticals.

Furthermore, WE LET THIS HAPPEN. That’s right, you and me – the market. We dictate what sells based on what we buy. And for some reason, we’re more concerned about erections than we are about prostate cancer. We the people aren’t protecting ourselves from the inherent dangers of free markets in medicine. We’re content to let the market regulate itself. As a result, acne has a better shot at being cured than melanoma. There are ways out of this. The government could offer incentives to pharmaceutical companies to develop treatments for rare but fatal diseases. We could develop programs that foster discourse between academia and industry. We could invest more into therapeutic development via The National Institutes of Health…

The point is, the greatest barrier to medical advancement isn’t lack of technology - it’s misdirected motive. If we can engineer diseases in mice, trust me when I tell you that we can cure those diseases in humans. Yet, as long as we allow the healthcare market to regulate itself and let profit be the primary motive for medical advancement, we’ll get drugs that induce 4-hour erections and treat restless leg syndrome instead of cures for breast cancer and Alzheimer’s.