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Important Newsweek column: Desperately Seeking Cures

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Catching up to this column from May 15 by Mary Carmichael and Sharon Begley.

The subhead:

“How the road from promising scientific breakthrough to real-world remedy has become all but a dead end.”

The lede:

“From 1996 to 1999, the U.S. food and Drug Administration approved 157 new drugs. In the comparable period a decade later–that is, from 2006 to 2009–the agency approved 74. Not among them were any cures, or even meaningfully effective treatments, for Alzheimer’s disease, lung or pancreatic cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, or a host of other afflictions that destroy lives.”

Read the entire column to get the authors’ take on what’s going on and what could be done about the dead end.

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June 3, 2010 at 8:23 am

That is an interesting article, but I think it creates a false impression that these systemic, organizational and financial roadblocks (which are certainly very real) are the main reason for the lack of “cures.” This is far from the truth. The main reason for the lack of cures is the science itself.
As of now, the most promising molecules (not invariably, of course, but generally speaking) are the ones that get promoted up the development food chain. And what’s the success rate of these most promising molecules in clinical trials? Abysmal, as we all know. There’s absolutely no reason to think that the molecules that are less promising will have a higher success rate. Quite the contrary. You could argue that if only 1 out of 1,000 candidate products gets enough attention to go into clinical testing, probably at least one of the other 999 would do better if given the chance. But you can’t take “the field” and perform rigorous preclinical testing on all 1,000 candidates every time. It’s not that the resources to do so are hard to marshal. It’s that they simply don’t exist at all, and never will.
Particularly annoying is the impression given by the article that the reporter found a bunch of scientists with real cures that are being ignored. In fact, I’d say a few scientists found a reporter credulous enough to uncritically repeat their extravagant claims about essentially untested products. Products that, using the magic of statistics, we can comfortably give a 99.9% chance of failing in or before clinical trials.
Obviously, inefficiencies and product development roadblocks are worth pointing out and should be thought about carefully. But the answer to the rhetorical question “If scientists are so smart, how come they haven’t cured cancer?” isn’t patent law. It’s that science is hard.