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“The Drugs that completely cure are not profitable”
Interview with Dr. Richard J. Roberts, Nobel Prize in Medicine 1993
(Original en español: http://www.lavanguardia.es/free/edicionimpresa/20070727/53380162760.html)
I’m 63 years old: the worst about getting older is that you consider many “truths” as holy: that’s when you need new questions. I was born in Derby, my mechanic father gave me a chemistry set … and I still enjoy playing. Married, four children, one quadriplegic by an accident, which keep me encouraged to continue investigating. I participate in the Campus for Excellence.
– Can research be planned?
If I were Minister of Science, I would seek enthusiastic people with interesting projects, just give them money so they wouldn’t need to do anything else than investigate and let them work ten years to surprise us.
– It seems like a good policy.
It is generally believed that to go very far, you have to support basic research, but if you want more immediate and profitable results, you must bet on the applied research …
– And is it not like this?
Often the most profitable discoveries have been made from very basic questions. So was created the giant U.S. biotech billion-dollar industry where I work.
– How was it created?
Biotechnology appeared when passionate people started to wonder if they could clone genes and began to study and try to purify them.
– An adventure by itself!
Yes, but nobody expected to get rich with these questions. It was difficult to get funding to research the answers until Nixon launched the war against cancer in 1971.
– Was it scientifically productive?
It allowed much research (like mine), with an enormous amount of public funds, that didn’t work directly against cancer, but was useful for understanding the mechanisms that allow life.
– What did you discover?
Phillip Allen Sharp and I were rewarded by the discovery of introns in eukaryotic DNA and gene splicing mechanism.
– For what was it useful?
That discovery led to understand how DNA works, however, has only an indirect link with cancer.
– Which model seems more effective research for you, the American or the European?
It’s obvious that the U.S., where private capital has an active role, is much more efficient. Take for example the spectacular progress of the computer industry, where private money financed basic and applied research, but for the health industry … I have my reservations.
– I listen
Research on human health cannot depend only on its profitability. What’s good for the corporate dividends is not always good for people.
– Could you explain?
Pharmaceutical industry wants to serve the capital markets …
– As any other industry
It’s just not any other industry, we are talking about our health and our lives and our children and millions of human beings.
– But if they are profitable, they will research better.
If you only think about benefits, you stop worrying about serving people.
– For instance?
I’ve seen that in some cases researchers dependent on private funds would have discovered a very effective medicine that would have completely eliminated a disease …
– And why do they stop investigating?
Because drug companies often are not as interested in healing you as in getting your money, so that investigation, suddenly, is diverted to the discovery of drugs that do not heal completely, but chronify the disease and make you experience an improvement that disappears when you stop taking the drug.
– It’s a serious accusation.
It is usual that pharmaceutical companies are interested in research that doesn’t cure but only make illnesses chronic with more profitable drugs that the ones that would completely cure once and forever. You just need to follow the financial analysis of the pharmaceutical industry and verify what I say.
– There are killing dividends.
That’s why we say that health cannot be a market and cannot be understood merely as a means of earning money. And I think that the European model of mixed private and public capital is less likely to encourage such abuses.
– An example of such abuse?
Investigations with antibiotics have been stopped because they were too effective and completely cured. As no new antibiotics have been developed, infectious organisms have become resistant and today tuberculosis, which in my childhood had been defeated, reappears and has killed this past year a million people.
– Are you talking about the Third World?
That is another sad chapter: Third World diseases are hardly investigated, because the drugs that would fight them are unprofitable. But I’m talking about our First World: the medicine that completely heals is not profitable and therefore is not researched.
– Don’t get politicians involved?
Don’t get too excited: in our system, politicians are mere employees of big companies, who invest what is necessary so that “their kids” get elected, and if they are not elected, they buy those who were elected.
Money and big companies are only interested in multiply. Almost all politicians – and I know what I mean, depend shamelessly on these multinational pharmaceutical companies that fund their campaigns. The rest are words …
Note of Ariel: Revista ARIEL recommends its readers read the following links taken from Periodismo Humano, relating to this same topic:
Periodismo Humano: http://periodismohumano.com con la serie ‘Farmacéuticas: razones para el escepticismo’
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