Newsweek's Sharon Begley and Mary Carmichael have collaborated on a must-read cover story in Newsweek, entitled: "Desperately Seeking Cures: Medical Progress Isn't Making Progress Rapidly Enough--Here's Why--And How To Push Things Forward."
The Newsweekers begin by noting the fall-off in the drug pipeline:
From 1996 to 1999, the U.S. food and Drug Administration approved 157 new drugs. In the comparable period a decade later—that is, from 2006 to 2009—the agency approved 74. Not among them were any cures, or even meaningfully effective treatments, for Alzheimer’s disease, lung or pancreatic cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, or a host of other afflictions that destroy lives.
What's happened? The co-authors explain:
“Basic research is healthy in America,” says John Adler, a Stanford University professor who invented the CyberKnife, a robotic device that treats cancer with precise, high doses of radiation. “But patients aren’t benefiting. Our understanding of diseases is greater than ever. But academics think, ‘We had three papers in Science or Nature, so that must have been [NIH] money well spent.’?”
More and more policymakers and patients are therefore asking, where are the cures? The answer is that potential cures, or at least treatments, are stuck in the chasm between a scientific discovery and the doctor’s office: what’s been called the valley of death.
The barriers to exploiting fundamental discoveries begin with science labs themselves. In academia and the NIH, the system of honors, grants, and tenure rewards basic discoveries (a gene for Parkinson’s! a molecule that halts metastasis!), not the grunt work that turns such breakthroughs into drugs. “Colleagues tell me they’re very successful getting NIH grants because their experiments are elegant and likely to yield fundamental discoveries, even if they have no prospect of producing something that helps human diseases,” says cancer biologist Raymond Hohl of the University of Iowa.
In other words, Begley and Carmichael argue, scientists have come to see working for the NIH as an end in itself. An ominous development, if true.
Begley and Carmichael offer some suggestions for exiting this rut, including a greater emphasis on cooperation among "turf-jealous academics," and even direct grants to biotech companies, as championed by Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.)--those biotech companies can be presumed to be more interested in actually getting drugs, and cures, to market.