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Prescription drug research is not new for Uncle Sam

January 24, 2011

Have you read the article in The New York Times about the “new” institute Obama and the federal government have created called the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences? It’s going to have a $1 billion budget its first year of operation, and its reason for being is that private drug companies aren’t coming up with new prescription drugs fast enough, so the government wants this institute to do that.

This is a very complicated subject; one that I’m sure I won’t do justice to because the levels of it are almost unfathomable. However, there are a few things I know, a few things that made me go, “Huh?” when I read the story in the Times, and I will share those things with you.

First of all, it’s important to know that the National Institute of Health had a budget in 2010 of $31.2 billion. Almost all of that money – about 90 percent – is spent on basic science research in the form of grants to institutions of higher learning and its own labs in Bethesda. What is basic science? Basic science means finding the connection between A and B. It means identifying a single protein on a single gene. Why identify the protein? The hope is that with the protein identified, an enzyme produced by that protein will also be identified and then tied to some disease or another.

All of that research takes a long time (and millions and millions of dollars), and private companies generally don’t take part in it. What they do is they wait until something is discovered (by a federally funded institution) and then one way or another they get a hold of the research – through less than honorable means because the researcher didn’t patent his discovery in time, or they bring the researcher on board, enticing him away from academia. Either way, the private company makes use of the millions of dollars the federal government has invested.

My first point being, this announcement of this new center makes it sound as though Obama’s administration is just now getting involved in the research for and manufacturing of prescription drugs. That is soooooo not the case. The federal government has been funding drug research for more than 80 years.

My second point has to do with genetic patents. When the Human Genome Project revealed the sequencing of our DNA, there was a gold rush by many private companies to identify and then patent genes (there are 30,000 of them) as well as the proteins produced by the genes (there are about 300,000 of those). These patents were issued – by the FDA – without anyone knowing really what any of those genes and proteins did. It was simply, “I found it. I claim it. Because, by God, if there’s any money to be made off of it, I want my chunk.” Well, those patents last 20 years.

New drugs can’t be discovered before the basic science of the genes and proteins are understood. Who owns a bulk of the patents that have been issued? Private companies. Who does (or funds) the majority of the basic science behind new drugs? You do. I do. The federal government does. Are they talking to each other? They don’t like to.

My last point, which I guess just sums up what I’ve been talking about, is that this new center (IMHO) isn’t needed. In order to get this center up and running by October, one of NIH’s existing institutions has to be eliminated. The government is aiming that arrow at the National Center for Research Resources. Over 1,000 people have commented on a complaint blog about this closure, and many (if not most) of them are doctors and researchers who have benefited from grants issued by the NCRR and who wish for their research to continue, even if the NCRR is dismantled. The NCRR’s annual budget for 2010 was $1.308 billion. The administration plans to transfer some of its functions to the new center. Does that mean some of its budget will go to the new center as well? Will we continue to fund the research being done by the NCRR to the tune of $1 billion-plus as well as the new $1 billion budget for the new center?

My biggest problem with the whole thing is that Obama’s administration is putting this new center out there as something that’s never been done before – the government’s finally getting into the search for new prescription drugs! – and that’s malarkey. I’m also confounded by what is actually going to take place at this new center. And I’m fearful that it’s just more money being taken from our pockets to fund things already being done, to pay people to do jobs other people are doing. More government, but nothing more to show for it.

I learned a lot about this from reading a book for my freelance job called The $800 Million Pill. If you’re interested in learning more about how private drug companies benefit from publically-funded research, about how it’s another bit of malarkey when the drug companies tell you they have to charge excessive amounts of money for their medicines to help fund further research, pick up that book. It’s very scientifically written, but it’s an eye-opener.

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