Funding Medical Research

Posted on February 26, 2008  Comments (5)

Cheap, ‘safe’ drug kills most cancers

It sounds almost too good to be true: a cheap and simple drug that kills almost all cancers by switching off their “immortality”. The drug, dichloroacetate (DCA), has already been used for years to treat rare metabolic disorders and so is known to be relatively safe. It also has no patent, meaning it could be manufactured for a fraction of the cost of newly developed drugs.

Evangelos Michelakis of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and his colleagues tested DCA on human cells cultured outside the body and found that it killed lung, breast and brain cancer cells, but not healthy cells. Tumours in rats deliberately infected with human cancer also shrank drastically when they were fed DCA-laced water for several weeks.

DCA attacks a unique feature of cancer cells: the fact that they make their energy throughout the main body of the cell, rather than in distinct organelles called mitochondria. This process, called glycolysis, is inefficient and uses up vast amounts of sugar.

Until now it had been assumed that cancer cells used glycolysis because their mitochondria were irreparably damaged. However, Michelakis’s experiments prove this is not the case, because DCA reawakened the mitochondria in cancer cells. The cells then withered and died

The University of Alberta is raising funds to further the research. Some look at this and indite a funding system that does not support research for human health unless there is profit to be made. Much of the blame seems to go to profit focused drug companies. I can see room for some criticism. But really I think the criticism is misplaced.

The organizations for which curing cancer is the partial aim (rather than making money) say government (partial aim or public health…), public universities (partial aim of science research or medical research…), foundations, cancer societies, private universities… should fund such efforts, if they have merit. Universities have huge research budgets. Unfortunately many see profit as their objective and research as the means to the objective (based on their actions not their claims). These entities with supposedly noble purposes are the entities I blame most, not profit focused companies (though yes, if they claim an aim of health care they I would blame them too).

Now I don’t know what category this particular research falls into. Extremely promising or a decent risk that might work just like hundreds or thousands of other possibilities. But lets look at several possibilities. Some others thoughts on where it falls: Dichloroacetate to enter clinical trials in cancer patients, from a previous post here – Not a Cancer Cure Yet, The dichloroacetate (DCA) cancer kerfuffle, CBC’s ‘The Current’ on dichloroacetate (DCA), Dichloroacetate (DCA) Phase II Trial To Begin (“Like hundreds (if not, thousands) of compounds being tested to treat cancer, DCA was shown by Michelakis’ group earlier this year to slow the growth of human lung tumors in a preclinical rodent model.”).

First, risky medical research that might prove beneficial like thousands of other possibilities to fund. Fine, big deal, some get funded some don’t. Extremely promising, but no guarantee it would definitely be funded but for the fact no one can lock up rights for huge profits if the research is successful. This is a problem and should be addressed (pretty much as I discuss below though the rhetoric could be toned down a bit, excuses by existing people that they are trapped by the boxes they have placed themselves into could be more acceptable…). Basically the idea is if it is an economically wise choice (for society at large in this case) and the current system does not select that wise choice then the current system is imperfect (in this specific way – of course overall it is imperfect…). And as good engineer knows, we would want to improve the system to be more effective by adjusting they system so that the wise decision is made.

And finally (the one that many with outrage seem to believe is the case in this instance): a sure fire solution for many with cancer now and in the future. In this case there is no question. It must be funded and those that don’t take drastic actions to break the boxes their predecessors worked within should be viewed with something close to contempt. It simply is not acceptable to sit by and make excuses if there is a solution that would almost certainly save huge numbers of lives. It doesn’t matter if you will be criticized or you may place yourself at risk for being punished. If you have a position of authority you have a responsibility to what is right above to your comfort or the comfort of those around you…

Those most angry believe their is not just a reluctance to fund (because no profit can be made) there is a proactive move to prevent research as it would risk profits of entrenched interests. This is not impossible to believe (but still I do not believe it). Within institutions I could definitely see such actions. If say corporation A provided $30 million in research funding to university B and university B had some line of research that might harm corporation A I do not believe it is impossible for such research to be quashed in various ways (hey Dr. C here is $5 million to research this thing we want and we will take the patent on that other thing over there and no need for anyone to look at it anymore).

But for really big stuff I just don’t think that can be done today. Thankfully there are too many interests and too many locations capable of research. If it is promising and is significant and is quashed even nationwide (say through regulation) then it will be researched in other countries.

So if this is really a potentially solution that would definitely be funded but for lacking a method to make it profitable it will be funded. Even if 90% of those with resources and the proper mission turn their back and stay in their boxes a few will sight the light of science and show that this research cannot be denied. Thankfully we have enough independent research centers and funding sources that I believe boxes can hold in what must be done.

That doesn’t mean we don’t need all those fighting to shine the lights where we don’t often look. We definitely do. And it doesn’t mean we don’t need more funding we do. It is great we have institutions like the Gates Foundation, McCarthur Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), Robert Wood Johnson Foundation… But I am also saddened that my trust is higher in those few privately funded organization than governments, government institutions and universities. Even while acknowledging government and universities do many great things.

I can’t really believe the smart people dedicated to finding solutions that work against cancer would really choose to ignore solutions just because the solution didn’t fall into their current way of doing things. If this is a very promising endeavor why would the American Cancer Society not invest millions, why would governments worldwide not invest? Frankly, I could see those types of organizations being stuck in their way of doing things and making excuses for why they couldn’t do anything much. But I can’t believe organizations that are more results focused like: HHMI, Gates Foundation, wouldn’t fund if it is just a matter of some funds to make this work.

I am confident, even if this did not fall within the mission of, for example the Gates Foundation, that they would act if need be. If the Gates Foundation examined the evidence and determined that they needed to fund this research or no one would and it would be a better use of their funds than what else they would be funding they would fund it. They would not care if someone got mad because it harmed their bottom line. But, I also don’t think they would really every have to do this. Even if they came close to this decision, I think they would then work with a small group of the right people to make it happen either without Gates funding or with some Gates funding and done by others. So the conspiracy theories I just done accept. The drug companies cannot stop research that definitely should be done (this says nothing about their ability to use the fear, uncertainty and doubt; political “donations” (payoffs); research funding; encouraging inside-the-box thinking and other gimmicks to influence what is done). And it is pretty funny, I think, that the Microsoft enabled Gates Foundation is a backstop against such a theory.

Now if it is just a good gamble, then, I can see the people running organizations that should care about curing cancer being more comfortable staying with how they have always worked rather than deciding that a new opportunity means they need to change to best meet their mission. If a truly promising medical breakthrough cannot be funded the problem is not that specific instance not being funded. Instead it would be a signal that the entire funding for medical research that needs to be examined. If researching this (or something similar) is what is in the best interests of medical research, for us all, then those that control funds for such things should make sure the research gets done or be replaced with people that will.

I understand the funds have constraints on how they are spent. And I understand much greater problems are imposed by those that are more concerned with staying in their box, building up their organization, not upsetting the status quo… But I don’t see any reason to put the difficulty of those in positions of responsibility now above those that will die if they fail to invest their resources the most effective way. So universities are not in the business of donating $5 million to another research center. Change, if that is what is best. Find new ways of doing things. Stop focusing so much on research that makes you a profit. Focus on research that make a difference to humanity. If practically divide up some of the research to be done at different locations (so you can keep you box largely intact and don’t have to think too far outside of it). Don’t explain why things can’t be done. Figure out ways to make what is needed happen.

Related: State asks voters to boost cancer research fundingAntibiotics Too Often Prescribed for Sinus Woes$600 Million for Basic Biomedical Research from HHMIGates Foundation and Rotary Pledge $200 Million to Fight PolioUSA Spent $2.1 Trillion on Health Care in 2006When Promising Cures Are IgnoredIndustry wouldn’t fund cancer drug, so Alberta town rode to the rescue

5 Responses to “Funding Medical Research”

  1. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Drug Price Crisis
    March 17th, 2008 @ 5:49 pm

    As I have said too many universities now act like they are for-profit drug or research companies: Funding Medical Research. For some background on drug prices read my 2005 post on the Curious Cat Management blog…

  2. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Medical Study Integrity (or Lack Thereof)
    April 18th, 2008 @ 8:28 am

    The significant presence of the corrupting influence of too much money leaves doubt in my mind that the best science is the goal. Which is very sad…

  3. Anonymous
    July 20th, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

    Finding appropriate funding for medical research is always a challenge. So who has the best chance to try to improve the system? It can’t be the researchers because they must protect relationships with those who control their resources. Therefore, the reform has to come from somewhere else…

  4. Drug Company Funding Taints Published Medical Research » Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog
    November 26th, 2012 @ 8:16 am

    [...] Problems with the Existing Funding System for Medical Research – Medical Study Integrity (or Lack Thereof) – Merck and Elsevier Publish Phony [...]

  5. System for Approving New Medical Options Needs Improvement » Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog
    December 31st, 2012 @ 9:14 am

    [...] have written about the problems with our health care research system several times. The existing system is in need of improvement and is made much worse by the general [...]

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