The shame of biomedical research
When the dark shadow of incurable disease settles across a life, it is brightened only by the hope that science is on the job: The cavalry will come.
Horribly, the cavalry — researchers in the big pharmaceutical companies and the government-run National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control — may not even have mounted.
New drug development is a murky business governed by huge risks, inertia, bureaucracy and politics.
I’ve been looking at the role of biomedical research and the development of new therapies and drugs through the lens of one disease, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis.
It is symptomatic of the whole struggle for cures, which means funds. It is a peephole into a system in chaos, where good intentions, economic reality, public pressure, politics and bureaucratic apathy play a role in where the research dollars go.
I’ve been writing about CFS for several years now, so I understand the dilemmas those who are in charge of biomedical research in government and private industry face.
It is a disease of the immune system, like AIDS, but it is mostly a medical enigma. It is hard to diagnose because there are no normal markers in blood or urine. It prostrates its victims essentially for life. In its severest form, patients lie in bed in darkened rooms, often feeling that their bones are going to explode. It cries out for more research, as do many other little-understood diseases.
A very small coterie of physicians — maybe not many more than 50 in the United States — specialize in CFS and have developed private clinics for research into alleviating therapies.
None of them is set up to do major drug research in the way that pharmaceutical companies do.
Big Pharma — as the drug behemoths are known collectively — is at the heart of new drug development, aided by preceding biomedical research that takes place through government grants to researchers in universities, teaching hospitals and private clinics. It is a complex matrix.
A new drug can cost over $1.2 billion to develop. It is a very high-risk undertaking — maybe the riskiest investment decision made in the private sector is developing a new drug. It is also a tortuous undertaking.
First a target has to be selected where there is a large enough patient cohort to establish a market. Then the science begins. Diseases that are straightforward, in medical terms, edge out those where the causes may be multiple and the resolution may require a cocktail of drugs. Understandably, a rifle shot is more appealing than a shotgun blast. Eight out of 10 drugs fail and are abandoned at some point. The winners have to pay for the losers.
If, after years of research, a compound that may work is discovered, the laborious business of testing it on animals must precede human trials with control groups and years of analysis. Finally the drug must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration which looks for efficacy, safety, risk-benefit and manufacturing stability.
Into this already difficult world of new drug development enter the politicians.
Some believe private enterprise will shoulder all the risks and is the right place for research.
Others don’t understand the vital role that government research grants — administered by NIH and CDC — play in the development of biomedical knowledge: the essential precursor to new drugs and therapies.
Its funding is on a see-saw; it was down under sequestration and funding is restored but not boosted under the new budget deals. It tops out at $29.9 billion, a decline of 25 percent since 2003, according to The Atlantic magazine.
Chronic fatigue syndrome — which has 1 million Americans suffering hopelessly every day — gets about $6 million a year from NIH. What’s wrong with that largesse? Well, remember, it costs $1.2 billion to develop a new drug once the biomedical case is made. As they say, you do the math — and don’t expect the cavalry to ride to the rescue anytime soon.
Across the board, researchers are dependent on government funds augmented by foundations and charitable giving. Yet biomedical research pays as a national investment. American drugs are an export commodity, the cost of health care is contained and, yes, the suffering is reduced even as life is extended. China, by the way, has said it will surpass the United States in actual biomedical research dollars in five years.
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS.