Thursday, September 03, 2009

The cancer relay race

An interesting post on Andrew Sullivan's blog touched the subject of big pharma, and the new push for anti-cancer drugs.

When people assert that compensation is of central importance to biomedical innovation, its important to keep some things in mind. The fight against cancer isn't equivalent to a bunch of scientists running a bunch of solo races. It's more like a bunch of relay races, where the advancement of one scientist pulls everyone else along as well.

For example, the lab I work in does melanoma research using a mouse model. My buddy and I finished an experiment literally within the last two weeks, and the results are very promising:

There really aren't many good treatments for melanoma, so this could be pretty significant some day. Our strategy is still years away from a possible human application.

Keeping in mind that this research was funded by a US government funded grant, consider the following. What if a pharmaceutical company took our strategy to the next level, and developed an effective drug to treat melanoma? That would be fantastic. Would they have done it alone? Certainly not. They just happened to be carrying the baton on the last leg of the relay race.

I am not* anti-big pharma, and what they do is very important. However, it is important that people realize the pharmaceutical companies aren't the only ones doing research. And, a huge chunk of the non-pharma researchers are directly funded by the US government. In that context, it seems a lot less unreasonable to think that medicare should be able to negotiate for cheaper drug prices from pharmaceutical companies, doesn't it?

*Just because I think drug companies are important does not mean that I don't think the system should be set up differently. I suspect that the executives of many pharmaceutical companies would not agree with some of the changes that I'd want.

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