Dead Ends

Gottlieb, Scott

DEAD ENDS DON'T LEAVE BIOTECH TO THE POLITICIANS TBY SCOTT GOTTLIEB hree decades ago, scientists got the idea that cancer might be caused by viruses, triggering changes in cell metabolism....

...Wasted money...
...Critics of for-profit research argue that it takes billion-dollar federal frontal assaults to provide the intellectual foundation for additional discoveries and cures...
...Alas, as with most early-stage discoveries, eagerness for miraculous breakthroughs vastly outpaced the science...
...Harvard cancer and AIDS specialist Jerome Groopman refers to this as a happy corollary to the law of unintended consequences-in scientific discovery, luck works...
...And they hold their research and development projects to a tougher standard of success...
...The viral theory of cancer attracted millions in federal research Dr Scott Gottlieb writes the Gilder Biotech Report, which debuts this month...
...Ironically, the NIH itself increasingly encourages cooperation between the academic and private researchers to prevent taxpayer-funded research 22 THE AMERICAN SPECTATOR SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2001...
...And that doesn't even consider the opportunity cost potentially more valuable work left unfunded by the stampede to find a cancer virus...
...For-profit companies have a tighter focus on the marketwhat real people need and want...
...Concerted efforts to orchestrate research into diabetes in the late nineteenth century, for example, would never have funded Langerhan's research on the pancreas, which led to the discovery of insulin-at the time, the link between diabetes and insulin was still not recognized...
...Mistake, not design, lies behind the greatest discoveries...
...More than ever, the most relevant breakthroughs are coming out of entrepreneurial biotechnology companies that focus their efforts around promising treatments, rather than interesting academic theories...
...John Enders in the late 1940s, when he was attempting to grow the mumps virus and instead found the method that ultimately proved essential to producing the polio vaccine...
...Researchers from both fast-moving start-ups and giant "pharmas" publish regularly in the leading academic journals...
...Medical research is driven by a large degree of serendipity...
...Members of both parties in Congress are seeking to push that up another 50 percent by 2003.Yet over that time, the biotech industry has turned out countless new drugs for everything from cancer to immune dysfunction to impotence...
...Scientists found the substance in dozens of viruses known to cause cancer in birds and lizards.These were the If anyone seriously wants to promote research, they can start by putting their weight behind legislation that supports the biotechnology industry...
...Federal grants are a crude tool for scientific discovery...
...Sounds absurd now, but by 1976 the virus theory gained widespread support, especially after the isolation of an enzyme called reverse transcriptase...
...That's why massive government funding rarely generates the cures the public anticipates...
...Since 1990, private investors have pumped more than $5.8 billion into 500 biotech startups.That's still a paltry sum compared to what the government has been spending...
...Today, biotech firms such as Vertex and Genentech and Human Genome Sciences combine academic-style intellectual freedom with the ability to usher inventions to market...
...Reverse transcriptase became invaluable in the development of AIDS drugs...
...Similarly, writes Groopman, "a government institute on polio probably wouldn't have supported the work of Dr...
...Not entirely...
...The National Institutes of Health annual budget has surged 57 percent over the past 5 years, to nearly $20 billion annually...
...The approval process is slow to adapt to technological change...
...Last year's astonishing come-frombehind victory by privately funded Celera in decoding the human genome was no surprise...
...And it's mired in political calculations that often cloud scientific considerations...
...Abnormalities in the genes of cancer cells were thought to be incidental...
...Many of these companies have built strong reputations for fostering an atmosphere where scientists are free to pursue interesting research for its own sake...
...An entire infrastructure of research facilities was created from scratch.Then, several years of work and $100 million later, the realization slowly dawned: dead end...
...Oops...
...For all the triumphalist rhetoric, government funded academic researchers have a lousy track record...
...And the powerful tools scientists used to isolate the enzyme are still used today...
...grants...
...Arguably true a decade ago, that thinking has been overtaken by the explosive birth of a fast-moving, technologically charged and well-heeled biotechnology industry...
...Can you name a single great medicine that came out of a government run laboratory...
...so-called retroviruses, where RNA made its way from the viruses into their host's DNA and subverted its normal functions...
...The government funded dozens of studies that aimed to treat cancer with antiviral drugs...
...But $100 million is a lot to pay for an enzyme...
...It was just a matter of time, the reasoning went, before viruses-and reverse transcriptaseturned up in every human cancer...

Vol. 34 • September 2001 • No. 7


 
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