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Publisher's Letter

FINANCING CURES

By PAM BERNS
    This past February 14th researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center jointly announced that two pesticides, rotenone and paraquat, are linked to Parkinson’s Disease—and that people who used either of these pesticides had Parkinson’s Disease 2.5 times more often than those who have not been exposed. As city-dwellers, many of us might think we have little exposure to farming and pesticides and therefore, we can relax. But unfortunately, we may have had exposure to these dangerous chemicals because Chicago, in an effort to kill off Asian carp, poisoned the Sanitary and Ship Canal in December 2009 with rotenone—a chemical we were told was safe. Those who may have used marijuana may have been exposed to other pesticides and herbicides such as paraquat as well as rotenone when these chemicals were frequently used to eradicate marijuana. Most of us live in an exposure minefield of toxic chemicals of which we have no control.
    Scientists at the NIEHS found that rotenone “directly” inhibits the function of the mitochondria—responsible for making cellular energy. In the case of paraquat, the chemical increases oxygen derivatives that can damage cellular structures. This research examined 110 patients who have Parkinson’s Disease and 358 controls, and investigated exposure to pesticides and other agents that are toxic to nervous tissue.    
    Patients with Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, Muscular Dystrophy and cancers of all kinds are waiting for miracles to happen before it’s too late. Unless you live with one of the many of these fatal diseases on a day-to-day basis, you can view scientific research and development as one more item on a pharmaceutical or national budget. But to those who are suffering or have family members affected by these illnesses, every day is another day of waiting for news of a cure or treatment that can make a life without suffering a reality. Patients read of exciting findings on ScienceDaily and other scientific websites, only to find research or treatment dropped for lack of funding or potential profits for private industry. The reports from the pharmaceutical industry are very disappointing; two-thirds of drugs in the pipeline are now rejected by the FDA. The NIH reports that only 10 to 20 percent of medical research projects ever make it to testing in humans. The pharmaceutical industry news is even gloomier: for every 5,000 compounds there is only one that makes it to FDA approval. Pharmaceutical companies are no longer delivering the huge profits of yesteryear. We cannot keep thinking profit-driven companies will deliver cures. They must deliver profits for their shareholders.
    There are many excellent organizations that help patients with compassionate care to make living with serious diseases more bearable, but usually funding does not go to research into finding a cure. In Britain, it is easier for donors to pinpoint where their research dollars will go. In our country, there are several not-for-profits such as the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation that use most of their funding for research. 
    In Chicago, Lou Weisbach, co-founder of the American Center for Cures, is pressing for a Chicago-based center devoted to finding cures for diseases, not just treatments. He has worked tirelessly for years to make finding cures—not merely treatments— the priority. You would think that every family with a member who is suffering with an incurable illness would demand funding to find cures. But inertia seems to be the rule of the day. America only spends a tiny fraction of its budget on medical research and development.Yet at a time where we are trying to cut line-item funding for everything but defense, why are we short-cutting funding that could provide actual cures for these diseases?
    It is estimated that as many as 5.1 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s Disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. They claim that as our population ages in the next 40 years, the number of people over  65 will double, as will the number of those with Alzheimer’s Disease. Given the reality of statistics such as these, a cure for this disease can only be a top priority both for families and for our federal budget. 
    Diseases such as cancer affect one in two or one in three of us. The prevalence of invasive cancer in 2007 was 11,714,000. These statistics point out how incredibly important it is for us to focus on cures, not just treatments. For those bean-counters who disdain spending on social programs, the reality is that unless we start investing in research and development in cures, we will be bankrupt trying to meet the needs of the sick. It is good business to invest in medical R & D. A bridge to these ends was announced in December by NIH director, Francis Collins, in Nature.
   Collins has announced the plan to establish a National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). It will be assembled from existing NIH programs and has a budget of $650 million and should be up and running by October (mostly in grants to academic centers), but the overall budget will be the amount of money much smaller than the existing budgets on translational research by current institutes. This is a good start due to the dearth of pharmaceutical investments in cures, but hardly enough. 
    Today’s most encouraging discoveries seem to be made by small innovative biotech companies which do not survive the “Valley of Death,” i.e., the sink hole that envelops the discovery when trying to get the research to market. The NCATS may be helpful. But it is crucial that the NIH budget does not have any budget-cutting this year. The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences will hopefully rush basic discoveries into the development pipeline. One potential project includes asking drug companies to give NIH the access to drugs that failed for one purpose that could possibly be “repurposed” for another disease. It is a possibility that these drugs could be found to be cures for diseases.
   But if you think this funding is pressing and crucial, as I do, and you think that the $650 million is adequate for such an important mission as the NCATS, consider that the average cost of one 
F-35 joint strike fighter was just estimated at $97.1 million. 






Published: April 10, 2011
Issue: 2011 Spring Issue