Medical research

The Supreme Court’s decision that no company can patent genes but can patent its tests for genetic information is the tip of a large iceberg. We have gotten used to believing that the patent process is the only way that new drugs and treatments are developed, and that private industry is the only source of that work. Nothing could be further from the truth but the attack on government activity may make it true.

It was public investment in research that pulled off the largest public health improvements of our age – the elimination of major scourges like polio through the development and distribution of vaccines that private companies don’t like to make because you take it once and you are protected for life or close to it. They want to feed us medicines that we have to take every day for the rest of our lives – that’s where the money is. But that’s not where the greatest improvements in public health are.

And that’s the difference between private and public research. The public institutions, foundations, government research labs and the university labs they support, are looking for the greatest public health bang for the buck, the greatest improvements in public health they can get for their research dollars. And there is no shortage of scientists who happily work on problems for the satisfaction of making a difference in this work.

The private companies are looking for the greatest profit for their investment bucks, whether that profit comes from minor changes in cosmetic drugs or slight changes in old medicines that may or may not improve patient outcomes. The founders may have started their companies with strong moral aims. But their investors quickly make it clear that some ways of doing business just don’t produce enough profit. They’re looking for quick financial killings, based on what they can convince people to use daily, and buy repeatedly.

But federal research dollars have been tightened in this frenzy of cutting everything the government does, no matter how crucial. And the reduction in federal research dollars spreads down to the colleges and universities and medical schools and nonprofit hospitals. As the federal research budget shrinks, universities have to choose between funding potentially important research or retreating to their core teaching mission and cutting out their public-spirited work. So medical research gets redirected and shortchanged and the colleges and universities have to charge more for their degrees if they are going to continue to be pro-public players in medical research.

Now we literally spend money for what used to be called snake oil, and skimp on developing vaccines. We have a medical system in which the doctors are taught what to prescribe by the drug companies, while public-minded institutions struggle to get information to doctors and patients about what actually does and does not work. It’s all been thoroughly arranged for private profits.

Private institutions have a role to play. But government, the great American contribution to the history of the world, democratic government, of, by and for the people, has a role to play as well. Forgetting that, we beggar ourselves to support financiers who are guided by their bottom line, not our health.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 24, 2013.

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