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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cancer cure - is it staring us in the face

Modern medicine is incredible. The pharmaceutical industry screens compounds at great expense to find ones that helps in the fight against various diseases; general practitioners skilled in diagnosis are able to send you to a specialist to cure your problem; less and less invasive ways are being found of doing what used to be major surgery; better and better understanding of epidemiology is leading to more effective preventive measures and so forth. My life has been saved at least twice and possibly three times and my quality of life has been greatly improved by modern medicine. With all its success, though, one mustn't loose site of its limitations. Just one example to illustrate the point.

There has long been a medicine in the Chinese pharmacology which will cure what we in the west, call Incurable Malaria. It is based on one of the worm woods, Artemisia annua and the active ingredient is artemisinin. Obviously the drug companies quickly did the research on this material, worked out how to synthesize it and presented it to the world to help in the fight against malaria. After all, its use for thousands of years in China made it a prime candidate for screening. You wish!!!!

 Not a bit of it! Unfortunately, since it is so well known, and by a civilized people and not by some remote Amazon tribe , it was not patentable. Not being patentable, the pharmacology companies couldn't make the big bucks from it. Sure they could have sold it in large quantities but there was nothing to stop another company from also making it and undercutting their price.

So how come we have this medicine available now in western medicine. Well a very altruistic chap came along with sufficient money to go through the very expensive process of developing, testing, characterizing, synthesizing and so forth and getting it through the various hoops set by the government. His name is Bill Gates. That's right. The same Bill Gates whose programs you are probably using right now to look at this message. In case you think I am mad, calling him altruistic, of course in his own field of software, he isn't. He is responsible for the welfare of his employees, his company and his shareholders. However, with respect to this and other medical problems his people are working on, he was and is very altruistic.

And here is the rub. For the above, very understandable reasons, companies often behave in the most appalling ways. I give you, for instance, Myra Brockovitch and hexavalent Chromium (yes it was a true story), I give you Ralph Nadir and Unsafe at Any Speed, I give you Enron and all her accounting firms. And how about cigarettes and the Marlborough Man assuring you that if you smoke, it will make you into a rugged outdoor he-man that always gets the girl. The list goes on and on. In case you think Parmacutical Companies are any different, I beg to differ. Their prime responsibility is to their company, their investors and themselves and I have long since ceased to be surprised or disappointed by anything companies do.

Lets be honest. To a large extent, they have 'done good' (and in doing so, done very well thank you kindly). They, under capitalism, certainly have done far better than that very humane sounding philosophy "from each according to his ability - to each according to his need". Do you recognize the quote. Carl Marx on Communism. Look at the barbarism that that philosophy spawned. However, as superior as Capitalism is to the alternatives, we must not be blind to its shortfalls and one shortfall is the way a medicine or medical treatment can fall between the cracks because there is little profit in developing it.

I'm talking here about cancer cures but the same applies to all sorts of treatments. My own favorite candidate for a cancer cure is Coley's toxins. You can Google it and see how convincing the story is. It is, of course, quite possible that it is all nonsense, that Coleys Toxins have no curative properties at all for cancer despite the very convincing "back story". Fortunately, though, we have the scientific method including the double blind test, to examine this or any other potential cure so we don't have to take it on faith. We can test its efficacy.

So we go to the head of a medical research institute. One with a chief executive who himself is convinced that the cure in question has enough evidence built up to be worthy of testing. Perhaps we find a medical school head whose wife or child is dying from cancer and who is desperate to find a cure. He jumps at the chance to test out this cure, right?

Not on your Nelly he doesn't. If Coley's cure , is effective the medicine to treat a patient will give you a lot of change from $10. (You will have to pay for a hospital stay or home stay of a few weeks at whatever that costs but the medicine itself is cheap). If Coley's cure is actually effective, in a stroke it would wipe out the market for a wide range of very profitable existing cancer medicines. That same medical research facility we approached to test Coley's toxins, is already getting most of its operating budget from the pharmaceutical companies. Wouldn't you like to be a fly on the wall when the rep from the Pharm company has a one-on-one with the head of the medical facility following the news release that they were contemplating testing a cheap alternative cancer cure. Remember that a successful outcome would wipe out most of the revenue from the cancer treatments division of the Pharm company. So how do we plug this hole in what otherwise is a pretty successful system.

What we need is some mechanism, some institution, which is big enough and prestigious enough to develop and test cures such as artimisinin or Coley's Toxins without depending on a rich, altruistic benefactor to do the job. It would probably have to be government financed and constant vigilance would have to be exercised to keep Big Pharm from getting their sticky fingers on it or otherwise subverting it. Not an easy task. The same institute could also randomly test some of the products coming out of Big Pharm. Thalidomide comes to mind but there are many others. When you consider the power of lobbying groups, getting such an institute up and running would be fraught with difficulties but it would be highly worthwhile.

Of equal importance, such an institution would lay to rest a whole range of "snake oil" cures that are causing much misery to people who think they will work. Homeopathic medicines would be a good place to start.  Disproving the various snake oils would have as beneficial effect on our health system as the discovery of cures that are at present falling between the cracks.

We mustn't blame the Pharmacutical companies for their behavior. They are primarily businesses and not charities. They have their responsibilities which don't always coincide with the public good. We shouldn't be blind, however, to their limitations and should set up mechanisms to overcome these limitations.  At heart, the major loyalty of any BigPharm company is to itself.

Post Script (Dec, 2011)
I received a link with a raft of hard information and links from a professional in the field.  It gives chapter and verse on the work of Dr. Coley and subsequent investigators.  Click on:::


Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

You can't blame companies for trying to make a profit, but you can blame them for unethical behaviour. This nonsense that anything is OK as long as it's done for shareholders benefit is as bad as cancer. Innovation is good, success is good, unethical behaviour is just plan unethical behaviour - it's never excusable.