In a drug-saturated society such as ours, the last thing we need is more drugs. Or is it?
The Obama administration has become so concerned about the slowing pace of new drugs coming out of the pharmaceutical industry that officials have decided to start a billion-dollar government drug development center to help create medicines.
The new effort comes as many large drug makers, unable to find enough new drugs, are paring back research. Promising discoveries in illnesses like depression and Parkinson’s that once would have led to clinical trials are instead going unexplored because companies have neither the will nor the resources to undertake the effort.
The initial financing of the government’s new drug center is relatively small compared with the $45.8 billion that the industry estimates it invested in research in 2009. The cost of bringing a single drug to market can exceed $1 billion, according to some estimates, and drug companies have typically spent twice as much on marketing as on research, a business model that is increasingly suspect.
Now, some people might oppose this because of the fiscal impact or concerns about government’s role in health care or other reasons – all worthy points for debate. What we find mind-blowing, though, is the underlying philosophy laid so bare: the notion that drugs aren’t just a required part of treating illness but, it’s implied, the main means of treating illness – and this, despite the fact that most drugs themselves cure nothing. They suppress or change symptoms, yes – and often generate new ones in the process (more commonly known as “side effects”). They don’t eradicate disease, but, by adding to the body’s toxic load, actually pave the way for future illness.
Meanwhile, others question whether this model of government research could actually develop any drugs that conventional medicine might find useful. For instance,
There have been only two major drug discoveries in the field [of mental health] in the past century; lithium for the treatment of bipolar disorder in 1949 and Thorazine for the treatment of psychosis in 1950.
Both discoveries were utter strokes of luck, and almost every major psychiatric drug introduced since has resulted from small changes to Thorazine. Scientists still do not know why any of these drugs actually work, and hundreds of genes have been shown to play roles in mental illness — far too many for focused efforts. So many drug makers have dropped out of the field.
For Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, the drug industry’s departure from this vital research area shows that the government must do something, although he acknowledges the risk.
“Would we be foolish — we being an agency that has never developed drugs and actually doesn’t know how to do therapeutics that well — to get into this space?” Dr. Insel asked.
But Dr. William Potter, who was once a top researcher at the mental health institute and retired last year as the vice president of translational neuroscience at the giant drug maker Merck, said that far more basic research needed to be done on the causes of mental illness before anyone — industry or government — could successfully create breakthrough drugs.
“We still don’t even understand how lithium works,” Dr. Potter said. “So how do people think we can find drugs systematically for mental illness?”