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The business of saving lives

 
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Aurelyn
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PostPosted: Tue Feb 20, 2007 10:56 am    Post subject: The business of saving lives Reply with quote

A recent article in New Scientist highlighted research on cancer treatment that attacks the problem from a new angle. Most 'conventional' cancer therapies view tumours as resulting from a mutation in the cell growth and division mechansims which results, ultimately, in cancer. This new research regards cancer as having a metabolic, rather than a mutational beginning, and it sounds almost too good to be true.

The treatment in question involves the use of a drug called dichloroacetate (DCA) which has been used for years to treat metabolic disorders with few major side effects. DCA has been tested on mixed cell cultures and has been found to kill cancerous, but not healthy cells. Tumours in rats infected with human cancers have also been found to drastically shrink upon treatment with DCA.

The drug attacks a particular feature of cancer cells, which is that they make their energy throughout the whole of the cell through a process called glycolysis, rather than in the mitochondria, which become inactive in cancer cells. Glycolysis is incredibly inefficient in comparison and produces toxic metabolites such as lactic acid, which further acts by breaking down the matrix binding cells together, allowing cancer cells to travel to new parts of the body and seed new tumours. The other important feature of mitochondria is that they control what is known as 'apoptosis' or programmed cell death. A cell with inactive mitochondria such as a cancer cell, is effectively immortal, meaning that tumours, as we all know, do not die out themselves but continue to spread and multiply. DCA reawakens the mitochondria, with the ultimate effect of the cancer cells self-destructing, as apoptosis is switched on.

Incredible, huh? The point of this rant, and apologies to people not particularly interested in cellular science, is that because DCA has been around for such a long time, it, like other drugs such as paracetomol and aspirin, cannot be patented. This means that the devolopment and trialling of a cheap treatment that has the potential to affect all forms of cancer with few side-effects will be have to be funded by charities, governments and university organisations, because pharmaceutical companies, although they have all the expertise and infrastructure to carry out just this kind of development, will not invest in a drug that, because it can't be patented, they cannot make money from.

Now, I'm not naive enough to think that anyone in this day and age is going to altruistically pour money into something just for the good of the species, and this particular case has just been given more press because of its importance, but it angers me that so many important discoveries, and the medical industry (yes, industry) is a particular offender in this regard, are slowed or shelved because there is no profit margin.

Whew, end of rant...
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Munan
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PostPosted: Wed Feb 21, 2007 9:42 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Do you think that it therefore would be better if the farmaceutical industry (or at least part of it) would not exist of private companies, but should be state-owned? Or part of the EU, UN or any other international organisation? So that its primary goal would not be to make money, but to serve the people?

Also, very nice that someone is using this segment, now that I don't have the time due to personal difficulties. I like your topic.
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PostPosted: Wed Feb 21, 2007 1:07 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Interesting topic.

"... but it angers me that so many important discoveries, and the medical industry (yes, industry) is a particular offender in this regard, are slowed or shelved because there is no profit margin."

Well, in defense of the industry... "they" typically will invest millions/billions on drug development on a drug that is unproven over the course of 16-20 years where they have the patent to develop said drug. Over the millions of molecules chosen ot study, generally a few make it to animal testing. Lets under-estimate the time it takes to get to this stage where you are left with maybe... 10 candidate drugs... 8 years. There are three stages of testing, generally: rat, primate, human. Factor another 6-8 years. Then there are the approvals (we all know about paperwork). Sure, there are "fast-track" paths for drugs that show great promise, generally drugs to treat AIDS, but you are looking at a 12-15 year investment, leaving a profit margin of what 3-4 years with which a company has the opportunity to make back the investment plus profit, before the drug formula is released to be made into generics...? Now, why would private industry forsake profit and spend millions upon millions on a drug that they can't profit from? I don't think it is industry's responsibility. Besides, as is, industry is very volitile. Recently, Pfizer shut down operations in Michigan. 7K jobs... gone. You'd think a company that makes viagra wouldn't have to lay off 7000 people, huh?

Perhaps, as Munan suggests, the respective governments should take over some aspects. Which they do, in the US via the umbrella of NIH. Of course, with funding for research at close to all-time lows (less than 7% of grants in "my" institute are getting funding), it is not likely that this is going to change. Sadly, it won't be until a few years before funding for research will likely change. Due to the Democrats wanting their budget pushed and the Republicans wanting to maintain "power", this issue will likely be tabled because the Republicans don't want to see the Democrats produce a successful budget and the Republicans don't want to make any mistakes with a budget that doesn't work when it is relatively close to a Presidental election, nothing will be passed. So, leaving it up to the government is embroiled in turmoil as well.
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Aurelyn
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 22, 2007 6:56 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

cfos wrote:
I don't think it is industry's responsibility.


I completely agree with you in this regard - if the pharmaceutical giants don't make a profit on their products, then they cease to exist. For a given value of 'profit' at least, which is where some of my issue comes in. I'm not really sure of the global situation as far as state-owned pharmaceutical companies goes, although there has been a very definite move towards privatisation of state-owned companies even in countries like China. Presumably the result of state-ownership of such companies would result in a drop in the price of the end-product, rather than a willingness to develop products with no knowledge-ownership.

Incidentally, Pfizer shut down operations in Cork with the loss of about 800 jobs just last month too - wonder what's up? Governmental input into drugs etc. in general is mostly at the research end (as far as I know)but this is a far from certain investment also, at least in some countries. I'd heard that the research end of things was in trouble in the U.S. this year over massive budget cuts (was reading about all of NASA's scrapped projects);a mate of mine just lost his postdoc after only a year with no warning. It's a fair ol' contrast to Ireland at the moment - the government is throwing money at postgraduate and postdoctoral research. Great for us - something like 20 new researchers started in my department this year!

On the international side of things, organisations such as the WHO are constantly working with governments, particularly in Europe, to close gaps in pharmaceutical research and shift development away from a purely market-driven incentive.
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 22, 2007 3:27 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"I'm not really sure of the global situation as far as state-owned pharmaceutical companies goes, although there has been a very definite move towards privatisation of state-owned companies even in countries like China. Presumably the result of state-ownership of such companies would result in a drop in the price of the end-product, rather than a willingness to develop products with no knowledge-ownership. "

While I wouldn't be qualified to answer this, I think that it is pretty accurate. Hopefully, someone more schooled in such can provide input.

"Incidentally, Pfizer shut down operations in Cork with the loss of about 800 jobs just last month too - wonder what's up?"

A drug didn't work. Not sure which one.

"I'd heard that the research end of things was in trouble in the U.S. this year over massive budget cuts (was reading about all of NASA's scrapped projects);a mate of mine just lost his postdoc after only a year with no warning."

Unfortunately, I think this is accurate regarding your friend's situation. It is happening a lot lately, although NASA generally falls under NSF which competes for a "different" set of monies. Hope things turn out well for your friend. It really is sad to have all that education and no job. Such is science.
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Aurelyn
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PostPosted: Fri Feb 23, 2007 6:43 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

cfos wrote:
A drug didn't work. Not sure which one.


Oh yes, it was their new wonder anti-cholesterol drug, torcetrapib, that actually increased the chances of having a "cardiovascular event". Didn't realise it had hit them that hard.
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PostPosted: Fri Feb 23, 2007 12:22 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Unfortunately, that is the downside of "Industry". Sure, the pay is great, the benefits are great (relative to academics), but if you project doesn't work out... and you can't be "transferred" to another, or you are in "management" making the bigger bucks... it sucks.
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PostPosted: Fri Feb 23, 2007 12:45 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

So are you industry or academic? Smile
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PostPosted: Mon Feb 26, 2007 11:30 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Why, academic, of course. If I were industry, I wouldn't waste time posting on forums, rather I would be looking for another job! *L*
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PostPosted: Mon Feb 26, 2007 3:25 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

A fair point well made... Smile
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PostPosted: Wed Feb 28, 2007 4:46 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Academics for you, too?
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 02, 2007 9:43 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

The ensuing discussion about so many of us being teachers was moved here: http://alienlovespredator.com/forums/viewtopic.php?p=72705#72705
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PostPosted: Tue Jul 24, 2007 3:14 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

cfos wrote:
Interesting topic.

"... but it angers me that so many important discoveries, and the medical industry (yes, industry) is a particular offender in this regard, are slowed or shelved because there is no profit margin."

Well, in defense of the industry... "they" typically will invest millions/billions on drug development on a drug that is unproven over the course of 16-20 years where they have the patent to develop said drug. Over the millions of molecules chosen ot study, generally a few make it to animal testing. Lets under-estimate the time it takes to get to this stage where you are left with maybe... 10 candidate drugs... 8 years. There are three stages of testing, generally: rat, primate, human. Factor another 6-8 years. Then there are the approvals (we all know about paperwork). Sure, there are "fast-track" paths for drugs that show great promise, generally drugs to treat AIDS, but you are looking at a 12-15 year investment, leaving a profit margin of what 3-4 years with which a company has the opportunity to make back the investment plus profit, before the drug formula is released to be made into generics...? Now, why would private industry forsake profit and spend millions upon millions on a drug that they can't profit from? I don't think it is industry's responsibility. Besides, as is, industry is very volitile. Recently, Pfizer shut down operations in Michigan. 7K jobs... gone. You'd think a company that makes viagra wouldn't have to lay off 7000 people, huh?

Perhaps, as Munan suggests, the respective governments should take over some aspects. Which they do, in the US via the umbrella of NIH. Of course, with funding for research at close to all-time lows (less than 7% of grants in "my" institute are getting funding), it is not likely that this is going to change. Sadly, it won't be until a few years before funding for research will likely change. Due to the Democrats wanting their budget pushed and the Republicans wanting to maintain "power", this issue will likely be tabled because the Republicans don't want to see the Democrats produce a successful budget and the Republicans don't want to make any mistakes with a budget that doesn't work when it is relatively close to a Presidental election, nothing will be passed. So, leaving it up to the government is embroiled in turmoil as well.


The thing is, funding is not the most pleasant subject to talk about when it comes to research. Just like in any other business there is the issue of working capital, only this time that capital is returned much much later or even never if the research fails. And as medical research is really expensive due to the risks it involves, you might have a little bit of a problem getting those funds out of governmental pockets.
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PostPosted: Wed Jul 25, 2007 12:18 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Damn the php error! I had a nice reply to this and now it is lost.

Anyway, the jist is that I don't agree with your above opinion. While there are some simularities between research and business, there are also some specific differences that disallow the comparison. In the first paragraph, I was describing industy-research which is very much like business in that the motivation is profit. In my second paragraph I was describing academic research which, in general, does not involve profit. As such, there isn't the issue of "risk" (unless we are talking about specific grants, such as the R21) when coming to money; rather, funding the war is taking precedence. Also, the bipartisan politics is mucking things up when talking about a budget. Nothing to do with the nature of research.
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PostPosted: Wed Jul 25, 2007 1:29 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Totally agreed. If academic research funding was profit based, a huge amount of the completely useless crap that you see both funded, and published, would never see the light of day. And the world would probably be a better, if slightly less cluttered, place.

Not that the above statement in any way denigrates the large body of decent, but non-profitable science that is also funded. Of course.

Actually, (and this is a throwaway statement 'cos I'm going for dinner but I'll think about it), I would put forward that nearly all 'decent' (I guess that's a pretty nebulous term) research has an industrial application, and therefore a potential profit.
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PostPosted: Thu Jul 26, 2007 10:48 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Your "decent" comment is a rather bold statement (and rather nebulous). I'm torn because I think I know what you mean. However, I'm not sure I agree with it for I believe that basic research has a place in the world. Do I care that a guniea pig is not classified as a rodent (or that said results were published in Nature in 1993)? I dunno. But, much like philosophy it has a place in the world.
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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 6:24 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Having thought about it, I will partially retract my above statement. I think if there was a way to easily differentiate between knowledge that has no 'practical' application as such, but an aesthetic or philosophical value, and knowledge that is just 'pointless', then I do think an awful lot of wasted time would be saved by just not funding a lot of research. A fair chunk of the papers I read on a daily basis (and many from good journals) provoke a huge 'so bloody what?' reaction from me. I was recently at a conference where I was witness to the all too common spectacle of some poor defenceless research student getting taken apart by a pack of bloodthirsty researchers. The poor bugger had just spent three years painstakingly describing the different fungal mycorrhizal communities of different varieties of grass in both monoculture, and polyculture grazing fields. Now, I'm not condoning the attack on him (and it really was awful - he clearly wasn't assertive enough to even try to defend himself, and almost ended up in tears), but no one in the room could really see any point to what he was doing.

Maybe I'm just not philosophically minded enough to appreciate all knowledge for its own sake.
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PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 10:08 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

No, I don't think that you can't appreciate knowledge for its own sake...

I think the rankles come from the fact that something that isn't personally interesting is receiving funding. Granted, I don't see the application of that research. I also don't know what sort of funding this person received in order to do that. If it was from a University, well, I have no problem with that type of grant. I believe it is, in part, the University's responsibility to fund researchers to do do all kinds of wacky things in order to increase "knowledge".

Of course, if it came from some sort of governmental branch, well... that just tells me that said country needs a good "war" so that they can weed out the less applicable research in favor of more anthrax research. *L*
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PostPosted: Thu Aug 02, 2007 5:21 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Unless it's part of a secret government scheme to breed some kind of fungal community that will destroy an enemy country's grazing infrastructure from within! And the reason he didn't defend himself is because he's not allowed to discuss the details.

Don't really see our government doing anything that interesting.
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PostPosted: Thu Aug 02, 2007 10:15 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Huh. Not allowed to discuss the details? That DOES sound like a government conspiracy! *L*
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