Thursday, May 13, 2010

For Profit Medicine Stifles Innovation

"Patient 5” was part of the first official experiment to see if DCA could fight cancer in humans. She took the compound in combination with conventional treatment – surgery, radiation and chemotherapy – and after 15 months her tumour had disappeared. She had no symptoms. Three others who took the drug also had their tumours shrink significantly or stop growing. In all, five patients with glioblastoma were given the drug – one man died three months into the trial.

Those results, released Wednesday, seem likely to fuel an increase in demand for DCA, despite the pleas of researchers and other experts that patients not take it until more studies are done. The DCA phenomenon is a sign of the Internet’s growing power to help patients circumvent traditional medical research on drugs, to run their own, unofficial clinical trials. This trend can lead to an increase in online scams, as well: On Tuesday, 22-year-old Hazim Gaber of Edmonton pleaded guilty in a Phoenix courtroom of selling a white powder he claimed was DCA to 65 people in the United States, Canada and several other countries. It was little more than corn starch.

One of the reasons some patients have turned to the Internet for DCA is that the drug has been around for years and can’t be patented. No pharmaceutical company was willing to invest the money required to bring it to market as a cancer treatment.

The University of Alberta researchers raised more than $200,000 for their experiment, resulting in the small sample size of five patients. As another facet of the experiment, lead scientist Evangelos Michelakis and his colleagues also injected the drug into pieces of brain tumour taken from 49 patients during surgery. They found the drug worked the same way in those human tumour cells as it had in earlier experiments on cancerous animal cells.

I've addressed this subject before, but it bears revisiting; proponents of private medicine and the profit motive as the best driver of innovation in medical science have a lousy case.

The biggest driver of real innovation in medical science isn't big pharm. Drug companies spend most of their budget chasing new erection or baldness pills, promoting the drugs they already produce and laboring to make tiny, meaningless molecular changes to existing compounds to make old drugs patentable again. The biggest financial backer for real medical research, not just in North America but in the whole world is the public sector via the National Institute of Health in the US which spends in the range of 30 billion dollars a year on pure research.

Meanwhile, drug companies refuse to research drugs that have been around long enough to lose patent protection no matter how promising new research shows they can be, in fact they will even suppress research into cheap drugs that would compete with their own expensive alternatives that don't work as well. When a cancer drug in incredibly small and cheap quantities was found to be an extremely effective macular degeneration treatment - in effect a cure for blindness - the drug company sought to outlaw its use for that treatment so they could split off the active compound, slap a new label on it and increase its price a hundred times.

How many people will die of brain tumors that could have been effectively treated, possibly even cured if drug companies didn't put profits before lives?

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