Thursday, March 25, 2010

In Search of a Strategy for Cures

In the past 75 years we have cured 4 diseases. None of these medical breakthroughs were expensive to accomplish. Virtually all of them occurred in spite of intense peer criticism and all of them involved the innovative use of existing, not new science. Most importantly, they were accomplished by maverick scientists following their own creative insights.

1- Alexander Fleming cured infectious diseases with his accidental discovery that something in molds killed bacteria. It took 20 years for him to motivate his peers and the drug companies before we finally had penicillin.
2- Salk cured polio with a simple vaccine that utilized a very low-tech heat killed virus. It cost him virtually nothing to make this finding. The Institute that was built to honor him has spent Billions of dollars since and has not cured one disease in its 50 year existence.
3- Leprosy was cured by an Israeli physician that used thalidomide (the drug that was banned for birth defects) on a leprosy patient. It emptied the Leper colonies.
4- Two Australian physicians fought the scientific community to prove that Peptic Ulcers were caused by bacteria and that simple antibiotics could cure them. Ulcer surgery is now very rare.

Organized science has not had anywhere near this success in spite of trillions of dollars spent during the same time frame. We still treat cancer the same as we did 50 years ago with drugs that are as bad as the disease. Alzheimer's disease remains untreatable and heart disease is still the major killer. These three terminal diseases are winning.

What is this telling us? First and most obvious is that we are doing something very wrong. Science has become a bureaucracy that has managed to escape any accountability for what it produces. We worship new technology for its own sake and have put all of our "Faith" in the elite "Thought Leaders" when we should be focusing on innovation and accountability.

We do not need to totally remake how we deliver health care (Obamacare) but we need to establish a system to cure the three terminal diseases that are both killing and bankrupting us. The current one has failed and in fact does not exist. This will solve rather than prolong the healthcare crisis.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Real Healthcare Crisis

The National mandate for health care access is clear from the new health care bill. We are spending over a trillion dollars so less than 10% of our citizens can now have access to health care. I would submit that the much larger problem is our failure to cure the three major terminal diseases (cancer, Alzheimer's disease and heart disease). Just these three diseases cause almost 2 million deaths per year! That is more deaths than in all the wars of the 20th century! They also account for a major portion of our health care budget and threaten to destroy our economy.

Why is there no national mandate to save these 2 million lives per year? Why have we failed to cure these scourges in spite of massive expenditures over the past 50 years? Most importantly, is there a solution to this enormous tragedy?

Having spent the past 40 years in the drug discovery business as well as at the National Institutes of Health it has become abundantly clear to me that there is a simple reason why the terminal diseases remain the biggest killer in or society. Simply put, there is no coordinated strategy to find cures. We have trusted this task to academia and the drug companies, both of which have other agendas.

Academics are in it for the science and drug companies for the money. Science is what propels academic careers and the drug companies can make more money at less risk if they treat rather than cure disease. This is further exacerbated by an FDA that is not equipped for the job of dealing with terminal disease since its mission is simply to regulate and not collaborate and facilitate. All this must change.

By far the biggest impediment to removing the terminal disease threat is the fact the there is no national mandate or strategy to accomplish the mission. Imagine if we simply asked academia to get us to the Moon back in the 60s rather than take the Manhattan Project approach that we took with NASA. We would still be on the launch pad today. There is a long list of things that can be done to accelerate cures for the terminal diseases. The irony is that we can probably do this with no additional expense than we are already incurring and very likely with less.

The first step towards putting the fear of terminal disease behind us and truly solving our health care crisis is to generate the national will to develop a strategy and re-deploy our existing infrastructure to successfully attack the problem rather than just churn out random science and hope some of it will be relevant. The good news is that the talent and infrastructure already exist and no new funding is needed. I have put together a plan of attack that needs to be vetted by further discussion in the form of a soon to be completed book. The national will must however spring from the grass roots and flow to Washington in order for anything to happen.

This blog will hopefully start that process and generate a dialog that will produce action on this long overdue national tragedy.